Whoever invented the formula: Two men (straight) + locale (exotic) = comedy (brilliant) probably never knew how infallible it would turn out to be.
The latest addition to this canon is Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, wherein two gentlemen of a certain age dine their way across the English countryside, and against its bleak, beautiful landscape, see the nature of their friendship (built upon bitter jibes and impressions) brought savagely to light.
It could be seen as a sort of grown-up remake of Withnail and I, a re-exploration of the the uniquely bitchy relations of male friends with similar careers. Which is not to say Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company–they get as much competitive delight from each other as Hope and Crosby in the best of the road films. But The Trip is not strictly about this dynamic, nor anything so lighthearted. The Trip is in fact heartbreaking.
Coogan plays ‘Coogan’, a man facing a crisis in his professional life and the estrangement of his girlfriend with whom, and for whom, the eponymous ‘trip’ was originally planned. In her place, he invites Rob Brydon, who fulfills the dual function of colleague and critic. Coogan makes withering remarks about Brydon (including a fake eulogy) and fucks hostesses, while Brydon blithely criticizes Coogan’s career ambitions. As caricatures go, they are painfully realistic, having oblique conversations about their lives and work that anyone with a less auspicious career could only dream of having; coming to some quite painful conclusions. Brydon’s advice, regarding stardom, is to ‘always be warm, never hot’ lest one ‘fizzes out like a supernova’, which Coogan takes as acquiescence to mediocrity. They act out the entire [dynamic] of their relationship in first an analysis, then a stirring duet of ‘The Winner Takes it All.’ And in the first quarter of the film, they re-iterate the most important realization that a creative person can make, while driving on the highway:
Brydon: It’s 2010. Everything’s been done. The only thing you can do is something that’s already been done but better, or slightly differently.
Coogan: That is…to some extent…correct.
But loneliness, and the denial of it, is the sort of unsuspected theme of the film, largely due to the landscape and its visual coldness, its expanse, its unremitting beauty. It seems to frame the film, to even save it from being a sort of long, witty lament. It is present even in their surprisingly wide range of conversation, whose topics include Coleridge (whose rejection of domesticity mirrors Coogan’s own), period dramas (Coogan wants to play Heathcliff, but fears he’s too old) and correct interpretations of Michael Caine (‘and you don’t do the broken voice when he gets very emotional’). Maybe it’s impossible to make a perfect film about aging as opposed to mid-life-crisising (though Synecdoche, New York came damn close) but it is possible to make a film that gets to the core of loneliness in a beautiful way, without resorting to the maudlin antics of a Terrence Rattigan play.
And The Trip (ironically) doesn’t really take you anywhere. It is neatly divided into scenes of gluttonous repast, wanderings along the countryside, interspersed with discussions of ambition and aging. The cut of the film is clean, but the emotional undercurrent is strangely messy. Things that, one senses, are supposed to be funny feel tragic–Coogan talking about his experience as an altar boy (not what you think) Brydon defending himself against accusations that his career is pathetic. Most strikingly, the brief shots of Coogan waking up in the night, his bare upper body exposed and with it a certain vulnerability (those beautiful sloping shoulders), left alone in huge, rustic hotel beds after his night’s conquest leaves him—sometimes without so much as a goodbye—at first light. There’s something unfair–almost rude, but naturally sympathetic, about seeing a character alone like that time after time, the disorientation of waking up not only in a strange bed in a stark atmosphere, but with the impression that he hadn’t gone to bed alone. This is The Trip‘ s genius–geographically and emotionally, the viewer is never quite sure where he or she is.