by M. Faust
Showtime recently began the second season of The Green Room, a talk show with an irresistible premise: For each episode host Paul Provenza, a stand-up comic who is a historian of his craft (you may recall his wildly profane documentary The Aristocrats), gathers four or five comics to sit and chat with each other. Unlike the broadcast talk shows, they don’t simply regurgitate their current routines to Dave or Jay or Conan. They talk to each other, sharing their histories and opinions and what they think of each other’s work. Comics are people who talk for a living, and it’s hard to see how you could go wrong given a chance to eavesdrop on a conversation among, to cite one episode, Martin Mull, Tom Smothers and Penn Jillette.
That’s the appeal of the British film The Trip, which is 110 minutes of two professional funny guys talking, to each other and at each other, albeit in a loosely fictionalized context.
The premise: Steve Coogan accepts an assignment from the newspaper The Observer to write about a series of upscale restaurants in the north of England. He figures it will make a nice getaway for him and his girlfriend (they’re having a rough patch). But when she cancels, he invites comic actor Rob Brydon to come with him. “I’ve asked other people but they’re all too busy,” Coogan explains; that statement, and the imperturbable Brydon’s failure to take offense at it, sets up the dynamic between the two, who are friendly acquaintances but not really the closest of friends.
The dialogue is improvised (no screenwriter is credited); presumably some of it is based on ideas the pair concocted before the cameras start to role, but much of it is clearly off the cuff. Both are skilled impressionists, and they repeatedly fall into hilarious duels that alone are worth the price of admission: Michael Caine, James Bond (Connery and Moore), Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Hopkins, Liam Neeson, Stephen Hawking, and many more. Brydon is the more skilled of the two (his Caine is brilliantly funny), but Coogan is more competitive about it.
Coogan’s ego is the real engine driving the movie. He’s a major star in England, and has been for 20 years, but in the US he’s mostly known as a supporting player in other people’s films. (Ben Stiller, who has a similar comic persona and pops up briefly here, often casts him.) Playing on the British public’s perception of him as a frustrated thespian, he’s always leaving dinners to make cell calls to his agent in search of better offers than the ones he’s getting. (“I don’t want to work in British television,” he whines.) The more grounded Brydon is content to phone his wife, enticing her with phone sex in the voice of Hugh Grant.
The Trip was originally a six-episode series for BBC 2 (exactly the kind of thing the generally useless BBC America should show but never does). It was devised by Michael Winterbottom, perhaps Britain’s most consistently intriguing filmmaker of the past two decades, as a follow-up to his film A Cock and Bull Story, in which Coogan and Brydon played similarly exaggerated versions of themselves. (Winterbottom also directed Coogan in 24 Hour Party People.)
It’s also a gentle parody of foodie TV shows, with the duo struggling to think of intelligent things to say about the elaborate and often outrageously expensive meals they’re consuming. (Sampling a specialty cocktail, Coogan opines, “The consistency is a bit like snot, but it tastes great.”) The transition to the big screen offers some lovely scenery of the north of England, the kind of vistas that inspire the two to break out into a rendition of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.”
A lot of viewers are comparing The Trip to Sideways, Alexander Payne’s comedy with Paul Giamatti as a frustrated middle-aged man drowning his disappointments in a sea of pinot noir while touring California wine country with soon-to-be-married friend Thomas Haden Church. It does have its serious side as Coogan contrasts his own life (divorced, unable to maintain a relationship, professionally frustrated) with that of the less ambitious Brydon. That gives The Trip an edge of melancholy, but not enough to keep you from laughing at the sight of a pair of middle-aged men singing ABBA songs to each other on a road trip. A sequel has been announced, taking Coogan and Brydon to Italy; I can’t wait to see it.
Watch the trailer for The Trip
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