What A Trip
by James Killough
I’ve always liked Michael Winterbottom’s name because it makes my inner snickering pubescent, who hovers just slightly under the surface of my persona, think about having sex with a young buck under a Christmas tree. The young buck is wearing a Santa hat and nothing more. Okay, maybe work boots.
Winterbottom is a British director who works with admirable speed, intelligence and ferocity in terms of the issues he tackles. I’ve never met him, but judging by his work he’s a real mensch; he was one of the first to turn a camera on the nasty injustices of Guantanamo. The only thing I know about him is that he owes a large part of his success and his ability to get his films made, despite a lack of box office success, thanks to his long-term partnership with his producer, Andrew Eaton. Winterbottom is much maligned within the UK film industry for one petty reason or another, but that’s completely normal; the Brits pretend they hate just about everything, which is why I un-pretendingly love them so much. They are a race of curmudgeonly, witty, perpetually intoxicated aunties and uncles, and you just can’t hate them for being themselves.
Most people know Winterbottom from 24 Hour Party People, his 2002 comedic take on the true story of Factory Records in Manchester, the 80s label famous for helping to launch Joy Division and New Order, which I’ve been meaning to see myself for years, but never to get around to. The first film of his I saw was 9 Songs, which I confess I called a non-film, but rather a series of nine music videos stitched together with scenes from a remake of Last Tango in Paris set in London. The alarming cum shot alone in that movie allows me to have my young-buck-under-the-Christmas-tree associative moments with Winterbottom’s name without embarrassment.
I enjoyed A Mighty Heart, the Daniel Pearl story starring Angelina Jolie, more than A Cock and Bull Story, which I already liked quite a bit. A Cock was audacious and inventive, and trippy in the way that it moved between the movie you are watching about the making of a movie, and the movie that is being made, an adaptation of Tristam Shandy. Angelina Jolie was utterly believable as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart, as Daniel’s pregnant wife who goes through a quiet but intense ordeal while waiting for the news of her husband, who was executed. The ending is mighty heart-wrenching.
The star of A Cock as well as Party People, Steve Coogan, is also the co-star of Winterbottom’s new film, The Trip, which could sort of be described as My Dinner With André as a road film, except it isn’t nearly as dull as André almost was. Yes, it is overly long, but this had no expectations of playing in a cineplex, so you just have to go along with indulging the actors. While André talked directly about the philosophy of acting and performance, The Trip cleverly performs the philosophy of acting.
The story is that Steve Coogan is on assignment by The Observer — basically the Guardian’s Sunday edition — to tour some of northern England’s finest restaurants, because he himself is a northerner. This romantically planned tour was originally intended to be a way to reboot his relationship with his girlfriend, Mischa, but she backs out on him, so he takes his best friend and fellow comedian, Rob Brydon. Initially a six-part TV series for BBC2, The Trip has been cut down to a feature for the States, which might explain why it runs too long.
The actors are playing themselves in a fictitious situation, even though this is precisely the sort of story The Observer would run in real life, which you would read after brunch because it’s Steve Coogan. They are the kind of odd couple who seem fractious, but at the same time clearly enjoy each other immensely. They are the theater masks of tragedy and comedy brought to life in a tragic-comic situation.
Coogan, the tragedy mask, is the unhappy womanizer. He lands the gorgeous chicks, has the bigger career, but he’s miserable: insecure, jealous, anxious about work and aging, never comfortable, always looking around for something better. Brydon is happy and well-rounded: he adores his rather plain wife, he’s still physically attracted to her and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but with her and their infant. Although he isn’t as big as star as Coogan, he is outwardly the more talented performer. His imitations of actors ranging from Michael Caine to Al Pacino to Sean Connery, which he does incessantly, with the same sort of incontinent compulsion that Robin Williams has, are uncanny, well worth the price of admission just to watch him do them.
And it is in the action of acting together, of bickering and bantering, of trying to outdo each other, that Coogan and Bryson perform the philosophy of acting. There is no need for Wallace Shawn and André Gregory to break it down for us. They perform because it has to be done. They could not do anything else. They are lucky enough to have a vocation, and have suffered and will suffer for it.
The exquisite meals and the travel through the gorgeous, mercurially weathered north-English countryside are as much a vehicle for the film to move along as the Range Rover that carries Coogan and Bryson. I imagine the locations and the restaurants provided discounts on the production budget, so they should be considered product placement as much as the fulcrum for their discussions. I did agree with Coogan at the end that the most appetizing meal of all wasn’t any of the elaborate French meals, but rather the “fry up” (or full English breakfast) they enjoyed in a gastro pub on the outskirts of Manchester.
The Trip might mean more to me as someone who works with performers than it would to a civilian. In fact, Rita Davies, who played a supporting role in my film Losing Her, makes an appearance here in a great scene, again in a museum, just like in my film. She’s a lovely woman, a remarkable face, and it was good to see her looking so well.
Actors like Coogan and Bryson are for the most part endowed with singular, remarkable abilities. We tend to forget the artistry and skill behind what they do, which seems so effortless, but is actually something that so completely consumes them that it even inhabits their dreams. And that is very familiar to yours truly.