Coogan carries on the uniquely British tradition of going on a road trip with someone you hate
Steve Coogan is a British actor best known stateside as the tiny figurine likeness of Alexander the Great in Night at the Museum. Playing himself in The Trip, Coogan begs to be taken seriously as an actor, lover and father, all the while making the sort of mockery of his life that marks the absurdity of his disparate reputations on either side of the pond. It’s impossible to laugh with him given such outlandish circumstances, and it might feel cruel to laugh at the actor’s personal life given the painful honesty with which he exposes himself and the aging actor archetype in general. Yet in observing his situation with an estranged detachment, Coogan laughs at himself, giving us permission to as well.
Inexplicably tasked by The Observer to tour the North of England as a food critic, Coogan finds himself short a plus one when his girlfriend drops out of the trip in the midst of a most certainly doomed break. With few other options, he dejectedly asks fellow actor Rob Brydon to join him, despite largely hating his company. Locked in a perpetual duel of Michael Caine impersonations, the two argue constantly throughout the cross–country road trip, every so often finding common ground and erupting into warm laughter and affection. Nearing the end of the journey, Brydon looks forward to returning home to his family. But Coogan, enlightened in some ways by his irritating friend, dreads the empty apartment that awaits him in London.
Demanding a sound knowledge of not only film history, but British lore and culture, The Trip is full of witty dialogue that nonetheless feels natural coming from the mouths of its two unashamedly melodramatic leads. Playing “would you rather” and making fun of movie cliches, the men’s conversation is maddeningly relatable, though it seems to function in an alternate universe where everyone listens to Kate Bush and can easily pinpoint an Ian McKellan impression. Uncompromisingly British, the film will no doubt carry its origin as a burden to the U.S., where few are likely to catch the cultural references that make the film so brilliant in some respects.
Yet other alienating aspects of the film have nothing to do with its audience. The film is too long for a dialogue–driven piece. Brydon’s endless string of impersonations, hilarious in the beginning, do not endure throughout the film’s length. Nor do extended scenes of conversation wherein both trivial and deep topics are discussed ad nauseam. When it finally occurs, the inevitable homecoming feels long overdue, and depressingly anticlimactic.
Coogan’s treatment in the film is at times too sympathetic, verging on sentimental portrait of the proverbial sad clown. His performance fortunately illuminates the comedian and the tragedian that exists below the shallow mask that affords recognition from his countrymen. More funny than sad, The Trip, though at times uneven, succeeds in throwing a persona into relief, as seen through the eyes of strangers, friends, and the man himself.
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
NR, 111 min.