Thursday, July 28, 2011

THE TRIP / Staff Review by Evan Salazar

Michael Winterbottom is one of the few directors who deserves the title of “eclectic” or “quirky.” You’d be hard-pressed to find one of his films that is much like the others, as he jumps freely from the quasi-documentary to the full-on documentary to thrillers and then to, at its core, artful pornography (lets be honest, 9 SONGS is not much more than porn intercut with some live music and strained attempts at plot – which is by no means a bad thing, you know, it just is what it is). In the vein of continuing to do what absolutely no one expected him to do next, Winterbottom directed a six episode British miniseries called THE TRIP, which brought back Steve Coogan (TROPIC THUNDER, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, HAMLET 2) and Rob Brydon’s fictionalized portrayals of themselves from an earlier Winterbottom film, A COCK AND BULL STORY. The miniseries was then edited into a feature-length film and brought over here to the States, and that is what we are presented with here.

The film’s plot is simple—so simple, in fact, that calling it a plot seems almost a bit overblown. Steve Coogan plays a version of himself that is insecure, arrogant, and angry, and after his girlfriend abruptly leaves for America, he finds himself traveling solo through Northern England on a restaurant tour set up by a magazine. Too afraid to be alone for too long a time, Coogan invites his sort-of-kind-of friend Rob Brydon along. Brydon is affable and kind, but also carries doubts and fears of his own. The major difference is that Brydon doesn’t use his insecurities to scrutinize and demean others, unlike Coogan, who can’t help but sneer at everything he comes into contact with. The film is a collection of conversations and moments between the two at high-class restaurants and local sights. They riff on each other’s jokes, they compare impressions of famous actors (the Al Pacino and Michael Caine impressions are hilarious, and I’d be remiss not to mention their spot-on Woody Allen impressions), and they both occasionally stew in the other’s misery.

Fans of British comedy and television will notice similarities between Coogan’s character and Ricky Gervais’ character from his HBO series EXTRAS. Both are addled with aspirations that far out-reach their actual skill sets, and so they turn their anger for themselves into anger for others. They both also see themselves as big stars deserving more than they are given: Coogan deems his past film and television work pedestrian, instead wishing for the mainstream American success he knows he deserves. Brydon is the antithesis to Coogan, finding solace in family, his minor success, and living his life with levity. Coogan’s self-hatred has morphed into an ever-present cynicism, while Brydon saves his fears for phone calls to his wife late at night.

Did I mention this was a comedy? Because it is. All great comedies have dark underbellies, and this one is obviously no exception, but it’s worthy to note how truly funny this film is. Major portions of the film are made up of Coogan and Brydon riffing off each other’s jokes for extended periods of time, doing their best to out-funny the other. Coogan and Brydon are naturally funny people, and even when in the midst of the more dramatic scenes of the film, find an excellent comedic rhythm. No two people could be funnier to watch compare a drink’s consistency to snot or riff on anachronistic dialogue in costume dramas.

The film is also beautifully shot. The low-hanging grey clouds and hilly moors of Northern England lend themselves to somber beauty, and the documentary-style camera movements bring a lackadaisical, voyeuristic quality to Coogan and Brydon’s conversations—it’s as if you were sitting two tables away from them in the restaurant. The film’s beauty really can’t be stated enough, though: shots are framed with clear and apparent care, like during Coogan’s first conversation with his American girlfriend over the phone. There is a wonderful shot of him standing at the apex of a hill in silhouette as clouds roll across the landscape, and it’s this attention to visual beauty that almost brings the film’s comedic elements to a whole new level. The marriage between the melancholic visuals and humor create a profound effect on the overall product; the film is not self-serious, but it is very genuine in its ideas, motives, and words. It is a film full of care, and it is apparent that the actors believe in each beat the film takes.

THE TRIP is perhaps a British version of a Woody Allen or James L. Brooks film; comedy with darker, deeper veins beneath its surface. It’s completely hilarious, but also thoughtful and maybe even a little sad. It does its balancing act with poise, allowing both sides weight evenly. A moment never gets too heavy that a joke can’t save it, nor does the film ever stray too far from the its emotional core. And that’s the film’s strongest component, how well it has its finger on the pulse of human emotions and interactions. It all feels very real, very funny, and very thoughtful.

THE TRIP opens at The Loft Friday, July 29th.

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