Friday, July 29, 2011

Traverse City Film Festival Dispatch #3: THE TRIP

In 1981 versatile French director Louis Malle made My Dinner with Andre, a feature-length conversation between friends and colleagues Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn playing fictionalized versions of themselves. It's a favorite film of mine, an intelligent, dense discussion of art, philosophy, and the ways in which these topics can inform a life in the arts. It's also a delightfully engaging work that's a deceptively simple and endlessly complex work about friendship and the exchange of ideas.

I didn't expect to find that film's equivalent when I stepped into equally versatile director Michael Winterbottom's new comedy The Trip. And yet, here it is, a road trip comedy starring British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves, traveling together on a restaurant tour of northern England. While sightseeing and eating, they talk and talk and talk and in the process reveal deep truths about their characters. It's a total lark on the surface and just underneath it's startlingly moving.

The reason for the trip is an assignment given to Coogan from a newspaper looking for a piece of celebrity travel-writing. He took it in order to go on a weeklong romantic vacation with his girlfriend but, at the last moment, she alighted to America to take a job and informed him that they should "take a break." After exhausting his other options, he finally breaks down and asks his colleague and sort-of friend Brydon.

So, they somewhat reluctantly set out on an epicurean jaunt through the countryside, stopping in little towns, staying in several quaint hotels, and eating in plenty of restaurants of varying degrees of fancy. The two of them fall into a pattern of banter, needling, and running jokes. This playful behavior ever so slightly masks their twinges of competitive jealousy towards one another.

These men are two extremely charming, fantastically funny gents and it's a pleasure to spend time with them. What slowly becomes apparent is the small underlying spite in the jocularity. Coogan is a success in Britain but is finding frustration in his attempts to make that celebrity worldwide. He yearns to take his career to the next level and when he looks at Brydon he sees all the more clearly his personal estrangements, his recently dashed romance, his ex-wife, his distant but loving son. He sees his acceptance of loneliness as a price to pay on the road that hopefully will lead him on to bigger and better things.

Brydon has never achieved quite the same level of prominence as Coogan, but he doesn't hold the same level of ambition for his career either. He's happily married with a little baby at home. On the road, he misses them. His goals in life lie not just for his career but are more for his personal life. He wants to love and be loved. Taken just a smidgen out of his familial comfort zone, he finds himself just a bit closer to Coogan. This trip is defined, in part, by their being alone together.

As they travel they use each new location as a backdrop for impromptu improvisational comedy and to talk about pop culture, their comedy craft, food, poetry, history, architecture, geology, music, film, geography, family, and eventually even themselves with glimpses of their own inner lives. The subjects are varied and unfailingly interesting. I could listen to them talk for hours, but what makes the movie really moving instead of merely charming is the way all this talk reveals the tensions and similarities between the men and creates a relatable push and pull between them.

Coogan and Brydon sometimes draw closer to new understandings of themselves and respect for each other. Then there are times that they pull further apart. What starts as a gag can turn suddenly serious. What starts earnestly can end in a laugh. The emotional trip is believably drawn, and though its nuance can lead to a feeling of almost painful emotion at times, there's always another impression, factoid, or laugh line to keep things going along splendidly. These two guys are often having a great time on this trip, and so am I. It's only when the laughter dies down, when they're alone again, that the truths revealed weigh on the mind. It’s a funny, moving trip that I would gladly take again.

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