Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Trip (Theatrical Version)

I was going to do some sort of food review gimmick for my take on Michael Winterbottom's "The Trip," but I feared that I wouldn't be able to fully address the copious problems with it. The reformatting from the roughly 3-hour BBC miniseries shows in that the film is abrupt and choppy throughout, never providing any backstory for the main characters or letting any of the comic situations build to their full potential. Seeing as I didn't get a chance to view the TV version, I'm unsure whether its this cut or the whole venture that deserves blame. I'm not necessarily the right audience for this film, since I always feel like I'm forcing laughs at this sort of British humor (which seems funnier to me when read).

Ultimately, "The Trip" is just another opportunity for comedic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, most famously paired in Winterbottom's "Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story," to screw around. The joke, both times, is that the two are playing themselves, and that Coogan is a womanizing asshole while Brydon is a charismatic family man. This schtick wore thin even before the end of "Tristam Shandy," and here it really started to get on my nerves. However, even Brydon comes off as annoying and generally intolerable, with his incessant impressions and jokey, overly agreeable nature.

Much of the film seems to have been developed via the aid of illegal substances. I can't say I understand why Coogan, who is apparently struggling but still very affluent and getting parts (in "In the Loop" and "The Other Guys," recently), is suddenly writing food criticism for a British magazine. This is the foundation for the film, and it already involves a suspension of belief. Anyways, Coogan has to go on a trip through the UK to eat various bits of fancy food and write about them (though we never actually see what he thinks or hear what he's going to write, rendering this facet of the film pretty useless). He gets to bring along a guest, and he elects for Brydon, after his girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley) heads off for America instead of coming along.

Even though it's patently ridiculous, this is a set-up that could work. But it doesn't. The biggest reason is that Winterbottom ignores the fact that comedy needs to build to work. I'm not a huge fan of comedy derived from awkward situations, but I can see that this film could have cashed in many times. There are only a couple of extended bits, and they are the wrong ones to be continued on. The only really uncomfortable thing in the film ends up being the way that Winterbottom startlingly cuts away from the action and expects us to find the last thing that was said (whether it be a genuine punch-line or not) to be funny. It rarely if ever pays off, and he does it many times.

Another massive failure of the film is that it often neglects to incorporate the surroundings into the humor. Sure, there's that bizarre moment with the guy on the mountain, but this is a movie that takes place in public spaces, and it feels like for the most part everyone around is oblivious to the antics of Coogan and Brydon. Never does either one of the two interact with the waiter except to politely thank them for the food. Think of how hilarious it could have been if one of them had insulted the staff and/or restaurant patrons and trouble had ensued. The camera often lingers on the food and the terrain around, and since the film never really puts them to use, I think it's fair to assume that they function mostly as food/location porn.

Finally, if the film had been more probing than it is, success may have resulted. We see inside Coogan's head, like the psychedelic passages in "Tristam Shandy," this time with a totally unexpected celebrity cameo which hasn't been mentioned anywhere. But does this really say that much about Coogan? Maybe it does, I don't know. There are moments where the film seems to be trying to get at what it's like to be an entertainer or a critic, and the whole negotiation between the kitchen and the dining hall, but Winterbottom is far too surface-deep for that. (Now that I look more carefully at it's page on IMDb, the film apparently doesn't have a script, which does clearly explain the film's lack of a focus.)

Brydon is a far stronger performer than Coogan, despite the fact that Coogan's Sean Connery impression is better. Maybe it would be sort of kind of interesting if we got to know him a little better? All we see him doing is talking on the phone with his wife. Maybe that's all there is to his life, but still, more exposition would be nice. I'm well aware of the fact that people will think I was expecting way too much out of this venture. Well, doesn't Winterbottom need to make reputable films to keep his position as a regarded director? Or else isn't it all just meaningless hype? No matter. "The Trip" would have been served much better by a) keeping the same scenario and aiming for more of a faux-documentary style, b) relegating Coogan and Brydon to having lunch at one of their pads and filming, or c) someone realizing having this pairing together on the screen isn't worth that much trouble. D+

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