THE TRIP – made for TV A-
Great Britain (107 mi) 2010 d: Michael Winterbottom
Quite simply the funniest film seen all year, a masterwork of spontaneous impressions, all of which call into question the legitimacy of one’s identity, beautifully unraveling in a free form exhibition of improvised conversations that seamlessly moves from one fictitious movie character to another, from Michael Caine to Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellen, Alec Guinness, Woody Allen and more, supplanting the real lives of two friends, Steve Coogan (as himself) and Rob Bryden, who is his fifth or sixth, but most likely his last desperate choice as a traveling companion, as they go on a weeklong road trip together across Northern England, all expenses paid by a British newspaper The Observer, to review some of the nation’s most prestigious, upscale restaurants in gorgeously posh historic accommodations set throughout the painterly English landscapes. Can anyone think SIDEWAYS (2004)? Coogan initially wanted to go with his girl friend (Margo Stilley) as an attempt to rekindle their lost romance, but she’s too busy trying to establish her own career, so he’s left frantically searching at the last moment for an acceptable fill-in. Bryden, like Thomas Hayden Church, is utterly brilliant as the mad side kick, giving an incomparable performance that is among the best of the year, where every improvised utterance is a masterwork of comic art that seemingly rolls off his tongue with the ease of talking. But it’s not just comic timing and flair, as he also reads poems or breaks into song at a moment’s notice, even memorizing bits of literary phrase that are appropriate for the historic realm they are exploring. Coogan, ever the miserablist, tries not to laugh or show appreciation, as if he’s paid to keep a straight face, refusing to allow anyone to upstage him, but instead heaps as much scorn and abuse his friend’s way as he can, acting as though he is terrible company, but at times they each try to outdo the other’s impressions in a comic laugh off, where the audience is simply delighted at how good these guys really are. Some of the best moments are when the guys do laugh, where they can’t help themselves, but this doesn’t happen very often, where Coogan is bound and determined to see his friend as a source of endless aggravation and misery.
Initially shot as a 3-hour British TV series, where each of six visits is a half-hour episode, this is a streamlined version which undoubtedly leaves out choice material, and without it, one can only wonder what’s missing? So one would guess the original source material would be the way to go, but that’s not how it’s being released in America where only the truncated version is offered. Even as is, this is unforgettable stuff, endlessly hilarious and filled with intelligent wisecracking wit. This is also the most gorgeously filmed Winterbottom film since his first real movie success, JUDE (1996), which accentuated with dizzying camera movement the sweeping enormity of the land, and these remain, while at opposite ends of the spectrum, one a wrenching uncompromising tragedy and the other funny as hell, displaying an underlying dry wit, his two best films, largely due to the intensely personal nature of the material. Here as well, shot by Ben Smithard, the unending beauty of the landscape is a remarkable attraction, seen as their Range Rover SUV whizzes through the curvature of the narrow roadways, often with stone walls on each side of the road, with rolling hills heading off into the horizon, occasionally seen through the mist of an everpresent fog. Part of the story is watching these guys try to connect back home after dinner each night through the use of a phone, where Bryden induces various sex fantasies with his wife while lying in bed, not at all bashful about embellishing the voices of various celebrity characters, while Coogan is continually seen wandering aimlessly out in the high grass somewhere trying to obtain phone reception, where his conversations are wrought with great difficulty, usually ending badly, where he appears to be the most friendless guy in the universe. The irony, of course, is that right in front of where he’s standing are some of the most unbelievably gorgeous landscape images, usually in front of a placid lake with the mist rolling by that continually changes the face of the horizon, with amazingly perfect painterly compositions that reflect the still life quality of the moment.
Some of the food offerings are an amazingly pretentious display of overkill, where it appears grass is included with every serving of a 10-course meal, always accompanied by bottles of wine, where in every instance they are given the best window seat. Not once do we ever see Coogan do any writing on this assignment, where he instead continually moans and bitches about the apparently stalled state of his career or how his girl friend is not there, while the ever upbeat Bryden appears to be having the time of his life. Both these guys are evenly matched, intelligent, witty, spontaneous, imperfect, openly flawed, yet they seem to use humor to rise above the moment, finding their humanity in their various impressions. Rarely does Coogan ever have dinner with Rob Bryden, as instead he’s met with a host of interchangeable characters that eventually drive him batty. Initially he tries to keep up, matching impression for impression, insisting his are superior, but when we see him alone in his room at night attempting to master various Bryden voice inflections, the audience knows he’s been outdone. Coogan can be vicious when given the chance, never having a kind word to say about anyone else, while continually seeing himself with delusions of grandeur, actually seeing himself as the Don Quixote of Britain. Not a chance, as that role would have to go to Terry Gilliam whose lifetime projects have continually been sabotaged and destroyed, seemingly by acts of God. Coogan shows a great deal of disenchantment with himself when he’s alone, where these solitary moments reflect an off camera persona that is quite revealing, the picture of middle aged frustration, quite a contrast to having to live up to his wish fulfillment dream sequence with Ben Stiller telling him all the American directors are lined up and can’t wait to work with him, which sadly, he has to wake up to feeling more isolated and never more alone. Once back home in the empty, stainless steel surroundings of his overpriced luxury apartment with sliding glass doors and a balcony overlooking the highway construction project, it appears his life will have to remain a similar project in the making.