When I saw “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” at the AFI Fest, it was screened at the Arclight, and I was sitting in the front row. As a result, when Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan stepped up to do a Q&A afterwards, it felt pretty much like a private show. And the chemistry they have in that movie is something that I found electrifying. The whole film, by Michael Winterbottom, is entertaining and daring and inventive and silly, sometimes all in one move, and the Brydon/Coogan verbal sparring is one part of why that movie is great. Not all of it, but certainly a component of why it made my ten best of the year list that year.
With “The Trip,” a new Winterbottom movie that is a feature-length version of the BBC series, it’s all Brydon and Coogan and that’s the point. It’s “My Dinner With Andre” with two performers locked in a mad passive-aggressive competition for laughs while on a restaurant-based road trip. It’s often riotously funny, and it feels like the larger “joke” about the relationship between Coogan and Brydon is carefully crafted and perceptive. This is the Coogan I like most, the loutish show business version with occasional flashes of self-awareness, and Brydon is a brilliant foil for him. Brydon can provoke Coogan as a performer, get a real rise out of him, and that’s what “The Trip” is really all about… Rob Brydon driving Steve Coogan absolutely mad.
The set-up is simple: Steve Coogan is being paid to drive around England rating restaurants, and he’s got the budget to bring someone else. He figures Brydon would be fun to play off of, so he gets Brydon the job. And then, pretty much as soon as they leave London, Brydon starts to work Coogan’s nerves. And vice versa. Coogan is played as a big celebrity wanker, and Brydon comes off as a talented guy who is painfully aware of the pecking order of show business. They’re definitely playing characters, versions of themselves, and I would say for fans of movies or TV shows that eviscerate the ego and foibles of the people who make movies or TV shows, this one’s a prime example of how to do it right. They play it just real enough to make you invest, but they are also more than willing to make themselves the punchline. Coogan in particular loves this type of character work. I think he adores it when an audience is uncomfortable, not sure if they’re allowed to laugh at something.
Winterbottom is one of those filmmakers who impresses me because of how limber he is, how he’s able to jump from style to style, tone to tone. That should be a skill set you look for in a filmmaker, but we seem to reward people who can only do one thing well, or who basically just make one movie over and over. I think sometimes people become successful just doing a party trick, basically. Once we’ve got a handle on someone, we like them to stay in their little box. It’s easy to digest that way. Someone like Winterbottom throws that entire notion out the window, and he does so with a grace that’s intimidating. Even though he’s got Brydon and Coogan together again, this doesn’t feel anything like “Tristram Shandy.” That’s a very formal film in some ways, an adaptation of an unadaptable novel that is largely about how unadaptable the novel is. This is loose and silly and feels improvised, even though I suspect they had much of it worked out before they started shooting.
“The Trip” isn’t a deep film or even one of Winterbottom’s great films, but it is pure pleasure while you’re watching. By now, you’ve most likely at least seen the bit where Brydon and Coogan do battling Michael Caine impressions:
When I saw Caine on the set of “Mysterious Island,” he had just seen this clip for the first time, and he was deeply amused and flattered. If you like that one short moment, you’ll enjoy “The Trip,” and I would definitely say it’s worth taking.
“The Trip” opens in limited release this weekend.