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October 2, 2011 / tietze

The Trip: An Unreview

If Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (2010) is – as is to be believed – nothing more than a meandering sequence of riffs around Britain’s Lake District, a collection of plotless digressions by comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon portraying mildly pretentious versions of themselves, then it stands to reason that the very critics who so boldly make these claims of the film are in fact in no position to review it. For what is there to review in 107 minutes of improvisational double act? The paucity of narrative drive? The sheer relief that it is not the three-hour television version they are being subjected to? (“Pity those poor TV critics,” they cry. “Pity those poor, misguided fools.”) Or the divergence, perhaps, from the performers themselves that their thinly veiled “characters” represent?

There is little meat here, it seems, and the fat is best left chewed by those skilled at assembling a soupçon of waggish repartee from a thin premise and the pleasant promises of a succession of west country restaurateurs.

Whither, then, critical analysis of so slight a text? If the film has a lot to say about little, then so too should its reviewers base their work on nothing – the like of whom (namely me) have not seen the blessed thing. And as I missed a second-run screening of it the other night, there is no better time to review it.

Would I lie to you?

Coogan and Brydon are positively on top form in this, the latest film born entirely of my imagination to feature their incomparable skills. Freed at last of the shackles brought on by his impenetrably mundane characterisation of Alan Partridge, Coogan takes as his first step the sublime rendition of Tony Wilson he previously gave director Winterbottom in 24 Hour Party People (2002) and imbues it with the naive insecurity of his Damien Cockburn, the ill-fated British director in Ben Stiller’s 2008 Tropic Thunder. That he should recall these two roles in particular – an earlier creation for his present (British) director and his own spin on the “British director” type – speaks clearly of the fundamental disdain he must feel towards the captain of The Trip’s ship. Threatening to surface throughout the film’s length is a quite apparent seething desire to see Cockburn’s surprise fate befall Winterbottom; that he would be all the more comfortable had the team behind The Trip consisted of himself, Brydon, the lighting cameraman and a sound recordist. Indeed, one wonders at times if his ease with the role might well have increased had he been allowed to pack on his journey through such picturesque scenery no more than Brydon, a portable video camera and a suitably hidden semiautomatic handgun. Knowing me, knowing you, knowing Steve Coogan, anything is likely.

More comfortable with the absence of a laugh track is Rob Brydon, who plays the Swansea-born fusspot to Coogan’s morose womaniser with aplomb. Whether it is the awareness that an audience of 200 of his peers are not present to audibly judge the paucity of laugh-out-loud content of the production, or simply the comfort factor of knowing every hotel in the Lake District hasn’t had to be booked out to accommodate them, Brydon plays his way through the film’s many improvisations more smoothly than Coogan. Given his innate Welshness this is high praise indeed, and his performance is all the more considered when one realises that he sustains the film’s entire length without once resorting to impersonating Sir Terry Wogan or putting anyone in a box. If there is a shade too much Keith Barrett in his approach, it is forgivable in a role that must serve foremost as a foil to Coogan’s agitated self-destructiveness.

The credit for the leads’ efforts must fall squarely with the leads themselves, director Winterbottom demonstrating the same indifference evident here that led to the dearth of authenticity in such period pieces as the aforementioned 24 Hour Party People and the earlier Jude (from Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, more carefully adapted by Hugh David in the “as live” multi-camera environment of 1971 BBC television in a version I also haven’t seen). His view must be that as this is Coogan and Brydon’s “trip”, all responsibility for its realisation must equally fall on their shoulders. Hot off the heels of the Jim Thompson adaptation The Killer Inside Me, Winterbottom must have seen the writing on the wall. After a faltering attempt early in the film (I haven’t seen) to replicate the explicit sexuality of his 2004 9 Songs (another film I haven’t seen), he appears to defer to his cinematographer – or, indeed, anyone within earshot interested in taking the reigns as he finds greater delight in each location’s adjoining buffet. (A buffet I haven’t seen.) The camera just sits, and so too do the leads, bringing nothing macrocosmically visual to prop up the subtle business Coogan and Brydon bring (literally) to the table. One endures the proceedings screaming in hope for one of Brydon’s patented song-and-dance numbers. (None of which I’ve… No, wait, some of these I have seen.)

Ben Smithard’s subdued cinematography is reminiscent of altogether too many drizzly autumns spent in serene countryside wondering if the likes of English pastoral poets like Michael Drayton or William Browne were off their rockers. Overcast skies are matched by thin lighting that expertly sells the many modernised restaurants visited by cast and crew for the bland, functional pieces of unsympathetic architecture they plainly are. This plainness sells the locations in the same matter-of-fact way Smithard managed in lighting all those other films and television series he’s lit that I haven’t seen either. I assume.

Similarly, Celia Yau’s costume design, Joakim Sundström’s sound editing and Amy Jackson’s production management are, as names plucked at random from a list of the film’s crew, people whose work on The Trip I feel entirely unqualified to discuss. Nevertheless, a film review this is (or purports to be), and so an obligatory sampling of production roles must inevitably be briefly highlighted in an effort to make it appear as though this reviewer has actually done some research on the subject.

The absence of a composer’s name in the film’s credits comes as no surprise. The music that fails to feature throughout The Trip is so threadbare, so utterly inaudible, that it’s a wonder any musician worth their salt would wish to attach their name to it. This doubtless falls into much the same league as the uncredited screenplay, the scarcity of which has come in for much scorn and derision from critics the world over, much of it probably justified. Crawl out from under the rock you’ve chosen to hide under, anonymous screenwriter, and stand accountable for the script you evidently forgot to distribute to the poor actors who had to make it all up as they went along!

It is worth observing that this film should not be considered an avant garde remake of the Roger Corman counterculture classic. No matter how closely the viewer may wish to replicate the behaviour of the characters in the LSD-focussed original. While some evidence in the film suggests a relocation of Jack Nicholson’s 1967 screenplay as the basis for the narrative of Winterbottom’s film, the heavy emphasis on improvisation sought by Coogan and Brydon makes their journey around the “groovy” eateries of Cumbria a less transparent updating of Peter Fonda’s desire to “go with it, man”. Nevertheless, the sense that Coogan’s Steve Coogan is simply Fonda’s Paul Groves, each in the midst of his own personality crisis, is at times overwhelming, and this reviewer has every confidence that Brydon could have impersonated a drug-addled Dennis Hopper had he so wished.

Ultimately, only one burning question remains unanswered. In Sidney Lanfield’s 1939 The Hound of the Baskervilles, just who is the mysterious hansom cab passenger who attempts to shoot Sir Henry Baskerville on Baker Street early on in the film, and why? The cabbie’s later description of the man leads one to suggest it is Barryman, but his connection with the escaped prisoner Seldon later clears him. Further, if the hound is being used to kill Baskerville so as to avoid identifying the death as murder, it can’t be Stapleton either. Oh, Watson – the needle!

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