It might be true that when you reach a certain level of comedic notoriety in Britain, media conglomerates will let you try your hand at anything; guest appearances on quiz shows, childrens’ books, miscellaneous podcasts, miniseries about visiting the states; perhaps prepare a budget so that two middle-aged comedians can tour some of Britain’s best restaurants. So goes the plot of The Trip, a further jaunt by director Michael Winterbottom into the pitiable realms of British stardom, travelled to previously with Steve Coogan in ‘Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story’. This time Coogan is joined by long-time peer and ‘Gavin and Stacey’ regular Rob Bryden.
Steve Coogan (as a delicately exaggerated version of himself) has found himself in the unenviable situation of having his much younger, American girlfriend leave the country. This creates a gaping hole in his plans for a romantic gastronomic tour of Britain’s best restaurants for two. Coogan resignedly calls comic Rob Bryden (also playing himself), whom he is yet to admit to the status of ‘friend’, but who is near the last resort from those Coogan could stomach a mini break with, however lavish it may be. The pair set off so that to review six of the best culinary experiences Britain has to offer. The meals are wolfed down with seeming little appreciation for the exclusivity, or current trendiness of fine dining. The entertainers have little knowledge or interest in food writing, and certainly no measurable ability to adopt the heinous food terms we have come to associate with fine dining. Yes, MasterChef’die-hards, forget about your ‘proteins’, ‘plating up’ and any subtle hints of ‘acidity’ here.
The film is shot handheld and documentary-style, yet whilst partially scripted and choreographed is presented as a fly-on-the-wall look at the very private luncheon and hotel room experiences of the pleasingly odd couple. It exposes two of the most recognisable comedians from the UK at a most precarious and vulnerable stage in their careers, which they grapple with as inadequately as they do knives and forks. However, like with Tristram, Winterbottom has artfully modelled Rob and Steve’s performances to exist as squarely semi-fictional. The result is that the pair’s private lives appear to be a logical manifestation of their public lives, careers and popular reputations.
In substance, The Trip is a composite barrage of Rob and Steve’s favourite impressions, industry banter, novelty sing-song and their special love for critiquing each others’ work. This largely takes the shape of pigeonholing each other; Rob is a silly gag-writer with low expectations for the rest of his career and whose most famous invention is a high-pitched voice belonging to a “man in a box”. Meanwhile, Steve longs to break Hollywood, but instead sleeps with miscellaneous waitstaff and grapples with anxieties about ageing, selling out and simply ceasing to be funny. In short, these are weary men, who in different ways have become stuck riffing on their own past successes. This trauma exists both inside and outside of the film itself, as both its content and it’s premise.
The Trip is something of a visual feast, real food pornography beside a soothing full-colour travelogue of the misty fields and dry-stone walls of middle England. The beauty of the meals and views is the silken thigh against which Bryden and Coogan’s lowbrow dialogue slowly chafes. Slowly a rash appears on the landscape. You can’t see the pristine wood for all the Sean Connery impersonations, and you no longer feel a desire for eating when the conversation turns to bitterly personal remarks or candid jealousies. Not to mention their abject eating habits can really take the gloss off of a chocolate pudd.
In line with this clash of high and low is certainly the constant discussion of money. These two comedians are eating and living via a generous media expense account, whose costs they tally up at the end of each meal as though they are notches on belts. Despite its differing prices, the food seems only as good as Coogan and Bryden’s mood allows it, yet becomes something of a motif – checking the price at the bottom of the bill is a way for marking the passing of the time they have spent together. They’re painfully aware they have to justify the expense by producing a written piece that ekes out just enough comedic value to be lucrative. Inversely, The Trip was an incredibly cheap film to make.
This fluctuation between acting and improvising, biography and fiction, and ultimately sexy and sad is what makes this film such a delight. Despite having been strung together out of a six-part TV series, the story has lost little of its bite and seems to work, relatively speaking, just as well as a feature film. Winterbottom has selected material neatly, and the melancholy ditty used to unmercifully depress viewers at the end of each episode of the TV version is resurrected to great effect in the film.
The Trip might not impress viewers who are hoping for a positive, fratpack-style ending, or of being walked through a set of Stiller-calibre mishaps that promote male bonding. But that is what’s so masterful about it. Sometimes your best friend is the one whose life decisions you can’t fathom and who will tell you if there’s a piece of £40 braised scallop in your teeth, making sure to mention how depressing it makes you look.