Generally, writers try to change the world. We think of ourselves as omnipotent while stroking prickly beards, sipping on aged wine and puffing down on fine cigars. This will be my magnus opus, we think to ourselves. Though, as luck would have it, many of these ideas go up in smoke (the others are publically lambasted upon release before being hailed as “masterpieces” three decades later in a Rolling Stone article). Michael Winterbottom doesn’t have this problem; The Trip, a big-screen reedit of an eponymous British sitcom, doesn’t aspire to be the next Citizen Kane. Instead it’s fully content being a film about two men eating lunch. In its simplicity, there’s genius; in its genius, darkness.
Presented by BBC and Revolution Films, Winterbottom’s follow-up to The Killer Inside Me chronicles Steven Coogan and Rob Brydon, two well-versed comedians playing fictionalized versions of themselves. In the film, Coogan is asked by The Observer to critique the U.K.’s finest restaurants. He’d originally promised to do it for his girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley), the resident foodie, however when she backs out, Steven asks Rob, his best friend and (at times) also the bane of his existence. Cue a delicious 107 minutes of nonstop laughter as the duo tackle some of the most prestigious eateries in the world — with not only a fork and knife, but also celebrity impersonations, karaoke sessions, and a pinch of English humor.
One can’t dismiss that there’s a notion of truth within these “performances,” however. Is Brydon using this experience to channel his insecurities? Those demons that tell him that he’s unable to confront reality and that behind every joke and face-numbing voice, there’s a cry for help really a way to legitimize an otherwise boring, uneventful life? On the flip side, is Coogan’s loneliness and desperate grab for success just an act? Or is it a parody of every aspiring actor’s struggles? Was The Trip used therapeutically? An oblivious audience member (or talented film critic *ahem*) can’t know for certain, but regardless of ulterior motives, the chemistry between these two men is a major success.
On the heels of the much-hyped (but mostly critically-panned) Transformers: Dark of the Moon releasing, providing popcorn cinema at its slimiest, Winterbottom proves that intellect can make even the films that don’t aspire to be revolutionary to be entertaining and filling. The scenes set in any of the esteemed restaurants that the pair visits are priceless. Think Steve Carrel’s delivery on The Office (sorry Brits, can’t say that I’ve seen the original with Ricky Gervais — don’t crucify me) but with more Michael Caine impressions and debates about Martin Sheen’s stage presence. These moments are rewarding to any movie buff (although those less knowledgeable in classic cinema can still find jabs at The Dark Knight amusing) but they’re especially satisfying to anyone not quite taken with the four-star restaurant scene: The pompousness, hiked-up prices, food snobs, and serving sizes too small to feed a cat. With Coogan and Brydon’s appreciation for film and a culture that’s ripe for the picking, it’s a shame it took me so long to discover The Trip.
Surprisingly, amongst the lighthearted satire, there is sorrowfulness. Now, it’s not an impending doom but there are subtle hints of melodrama, which fortunately, do not seem out-of-place. The stripped score, an orchestra of piano clicks and clanks, adds eeriness to the closing of each chapter, as Coogan stares into the Northern openness, trying to fix broken relationships. And the conclusion, a simple black-and-white scene card resonates for its lack of closure, because although it reads “The End,” Steven’s journey remains an ongoing saga.