Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Day 41: The Trip

"You're stuck in a metaphor!"

The lack of crossover appeal in the United States for actor/comedian Steve Coogan is absolutely baffling to me. He is without a doubt, one of the most gifted comedic actors that the last couple of decades has produced, yet with the exception of some supporting roles in big Hollywood comedies like The Other Guys and Tropic Thunder, he has not really been embraced here the way he has in his native United Kingdom.

I've read some articles and profiles of him and he is very specific about what projects he picks, so it makes sense that he's not just throwing himself into some garbage comedy to broaden his appeal, but it's worked to his detriment to some extent as he's still largely unknown to many Americans. Hamlet 2 was one of my least favorite movies of the last few years, but at least it was brash, bold, risky and a perfect starring vehicle for someone of Coogan's considerable talents.

In 2010, director Michael Winterbottom along with Coogan and fellow actor/comedian Rob Brydon made a six part mini-series for the BBC called The Trip. The three hour series was edited down to an easily digestible 107 minutes and released theatrically in the US this past summer under the same name where Coogan and Brydon play, presumably, amped up versions of themselves.

Coogan is on assignment from The Observer to travel the British countryside reviewing several bed and breakfasts. Being on the outs with his current girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley), he calls Brydon, with whom he co-starred in the equally funny Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, to accompany him. Coogan views Brydon as someone who has sold-out so to speak, as he is mainly an impressionist and comedian, whereas Coogan views himself as an actor first. The two aren't great friends, at least in the film, but they do have a good rapport together.

Rob leaves his wife and infant daughter behind and the two set off for their first stop, where they dine on scallops and begin an argument over who does the better Michael Caine impression. This clip made its rounds on youtube last year and brought some notoriety to the film, and while it is very funny, it's hardly the best scene in the film. The film is essentially a travelogue, almost in the vein of Michael Palin's famous Around the World series, a clear inspiration for the three auteurs involved here. They travel from place to place, dine, bicker, sleep, repeat.

The best moments in the film involve some of the more serious conversations between the two. Coogan is constantly deriding Brydon for relying on what he sees as his hackneyed sense of humor, but in a visit to the cottage of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the woman working there recognizes Brydon, and Coogan is jealous of him for the first time. As the film wears on, Steve begins seeing that maybe Rob has qualities that he envies, and that might be the real source of his antagonism towards him. It's not particularly subtle, but it's effective nonetheless, and it provides the film with some heft beyond just being a dueling impression travelogue.

There are many laugh-out-loud moments, such as Brydon reading a review of one of the restaurants as Anthony Hopkins, or the two going at each other with dueling Ray Winstone impressions. The funniest moment in the film is when the two are talking about the many battles fought on the countryside they're traveling through, and begin a litany of "Gentlemen, to bed..." variations. Both Coogan and Brydon are reliably good in both the funny and serious moments, and Brydon probably emerges as the better man if for no other reason than he's a more unknown commodity than Coogan. His schtick is endearing, there's no doubt about it, and the more it wears on Coogan's nerves, the more it endears Rob to the audience.

If there's any complaint to be made, it's in the sheer repetition of the film. Over an episodic series, it's probably much less noticeable, but in a film, it becomes very repetitious. It was clearly designed as a series and would likely play so much better in that format. Unfortunately it's not been released on home video in America, so the feature film is our only chance to see this. It's not bad, by any stretch of the imagination, you can just feel how much better it must have been when it was on television. If for no other reason, watch it to see two wonderful actor/comedians go at one another, bicker, make each other laugh, and have a blast. It's infectious, and will have you laughing much more than a lot of other comedies released this summer.

Tomorrow I'm back to bad movies with the found-footage thriller Apollo 18.

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