Truncated 'Trip' Satisfies Coogan Fans
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The comic actor Steve Coogan made his name in Britain in the early '90s with the fictional character Alan Partridge, a clueless, self-involved media personality; and of late, when he's not garnering laughs in Hollywood fare such as "Tropic Thunder," "The Other Guys" and, yes, "Marmaduke," he's maintaining his name in Britain via the character of ... Steve Coogan, a relatively hip but still very self-involved media personality. He essayed an uncomfortably unpleasant version of himself in director Michael Winterbottom's knottily inventive 2005 film "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story," an engaging attempt to transpose the sui generis author Laurence Sterne's pre-postmodern "Tristram Shandy" to cinema. And in 2010 he teamed again with Winterbottom, and his real-life friend and "Cock and Bull" collaborator, fellow comic actor Rob Brydon, for the six-episode television series "The Trip," in which Coogan and Brydon play "themselves" as they tour the fine-dining establishments of Northern England. No, really, there are such things.
Said series has now been distilled into a feature film, "The Trip," and if you're a fan of Coogan (or, rather less likely, given his more circumscribed exposure in the States, Brydon), you've likely seen the hilarious clip from the series/film that portrays the two stars doing dueling Michael Caine impersonations. The not-entirely-good-natured sense of competitiveness displayed therein nicely encapsulates the Coogan/Brydon relationship. Coogan's determined to demonstrate to Brydon that he, Coogan, is ever in the right on every particular. This determination, of course, begs the question as to why, therefore, Brydon is the one with the settled and happy domestic life whereas Coogan is ever on his cell half-heartedly playing half-assed emotional manipulation games with his American girlfriend (Margo Stilley), who bailed on the trip that he had arranged for the sake of impressing her in the first place.
As they ramble through various quaint inns and eating establishments and have unusual food, and Coogan perfunctorily beds down strange women and fights anxiety dreams concerning his Hollywood career (fatuously telling the cameoing Ben Stiller about how he's only ever interested in working with "auteurs" and so on), the picture begins to build intriguing intimations that stretch outside of its ostensible aren't-these-show-business-people-phony theme. When Brydon recites Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" as the duo hit that selfsame spot, the film can't help but reflect that the passionate idealism of the British romantics has been curdled by history and modernity, and where's Britain and British culture to go from there/here?
But ultimately the film tends to concentrate most on certain themes that are a bit less portentous, that is, that Steve Coogan's a bit of a self-involved jerk but talented. And also conflicted and confused and lonely, and, you know, it's sad to be lonely, even when you are a bit of a self-involved jerk, and it's particularly sad, it seems, when you're depicted being lonely on a chilly hillside, and the light is just so, and there's this not-quite-severe-enough-to-be high-modernist-but-not-quite-treacle-enough-to-be-sentimental Michael Nyman piano music on the soundtrack, and all that.
It's entirely suitable that "The Trip" locates whatever profundity it can muster within a certain middlebrow comfort zone; it's real "we feel your pain, smart guy" stuff (and its inside-baseball references are very inside, with Coogan at one point referencing, and disparaging, a kernel of career wisdom once dispensed by actor's actor Bob Balaban), without being all, you know "cultural-vegetable" about it. As such, it's a diverting entertainment. And it does, I admit, make me curious to see the full series, which is only but an hour and change longer than the movie. I get the feeling the serious and semi-serious stuff therein might play better in a more expansive setting.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.