The Trip

| October 11, 2011

The process by which Michael Winterbottom’s latest film The Trip came into being is a very unusual one. Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) starred Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in a part-mockumentary, part-fictional narrative film where the actors played themselves. The team reunited for a six-episode TV series which ran on BBC2 and functioned as a continuation of those same characters after leaving the roles of Tristram Shandy behind. The Trip is the splicing together of those six episodes into a feature film. This project would have likely been a disaster twenty years ago, but the influence that cinema has had on television has allowed for a level playing field in recent years. As a result, The Trip stands on its own as a surprisingly cohesive and effective feature film.
The Trip begins with a reluctant invitation from Steve (as himself) to Rob (as himself). Steve is to take a road trip across England to review restaurants for a magazine and he doesn’t want to go alone. He intended to bring along his girlfriend until she insisted on a break and fled to the United States. Furthermore, Steve is struggling to find significant acting work, and feels increasingly like a has-been, both living off and wishing to replicate the successes of yesteryear. Rob, conversely, is content with marginal-yet-consistent success and a loving, comfortable relationship. This establishes the dynamic between Steve and Rob, which provides much of the subtext to their conversations.
Their conversations are replete with competition, as they travel from town to restaurant to the next town to the next restaurant, and so forth. The monotony of this journey provides an ideal vessel in which to capture these characters at their current state in life. Despite Steve’s mixed feelings about Rob (feelings of jealousy and superiority), he clearly keeps him around for the sake of company and the fear of being alone. Rob’s idea of conversation is to constantly impersonate famous actors, even communicating this way with people he just met. Steve always counters with a correction of the impersonation, which results in some highly entertaining and amusing exchanges between the two. The majority of their conversations are borne out of these impersonations, as the two actors continuously pretend to be people more famous and iconic than they are.
Due to the televised nature of the film’s production, there’s an episodic structure that can be mistaken as erroneously repetitive. However, the resulting repetition amplifies the character’s sense of loss and the cyclical nature of their existence. It becomes a box by which they live, and is further reflected by the latest achievement in Rob’s career: his character “Small Man in a Box” (in which he impersonates the tiny voice of just that) is set to become a ringtone. This is shrugged off by Steve as a minor achievement, but becomes a metaphor more and more as the film progresses. In a revealing moment, we see Steve, isolated in a bathroom, attempting an impression of the aforementioned character. It plays as comedy woven out of desperation and gives the humor depth. The “Small Man in a Box” metaphor also comes into play when Steve and Rob visit a cemetery. Here, they comically reflect on their legacies, oscillating between wishful thinking and regretful despair in their predictions. Steve eventually associates the “Small Man in a Box” with Rob in a coffin, and thus the metaphor takes on an even deeper meaning.
In an overtly metaphorical moment, we find Steve attempting to cross a path of stones on a river as Rob looks on. Part way through the path of stones, Steve gets stuck and slips, falling into the water before he could continue the desired, if challenging, route. Rob yells “you’re trapped in a metaphor!”, to which Steve insists “it’s not a metaphor!” before climbing out of the water. This scene is self-explanatory, and needs no further elucidation.
The pace and mood of the film is not unlike Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004); another road trip movie about two characters trying to avoid a mid-life crisis. There are moments of beauty as these characters are set against historical, aesthetically pleasing locations, all of which provide an existential undertone. The photography is crystal clear and allows the viewer to feel the temperature of the setting, and smell the food being served.
Aside from the structure, there’s no indication of a traditional television model at work, and so the film is a standing artifact of television’s continued merging with cinematic craft. It’s kind of exciting that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.
Now available on DVD from MPI Home Video

About the Author:

Studied Film at Eastern Michigan University, the movie store and movie theater he used to work at, on his own, and with friends. Jared is also a playwright, screenwriter, director, short story writer, and essayist. You can read more of his work at two other websites: The Man in the Movie Hat and The Hive Ann Arbor. He lives, works, and walks his dog in the Detroit area, where he's willing to obsessively discuss The Simpsons or the films of Paul Thomas Anderson at a moment's notice.
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