The Trip (2010)
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
My Rating: ★★★★, or 8/10
In Short: Hilarious, excellently improvised dialogue-driven work of comedic brilliance
How can a two-hour film about two men cracking jokes, doing impressions of celebrities, driving and eating be as interesting as The Trip somehow is? Director Michael Winterbottom has a knack for creating films that no matter what the budget, always feel more indie or festival-aimed than they really are. This can come out in the favour of the film, but more often it has been a factor that did not work. This is the first film from Winterbottom that I have seen that I’ve actually liked. The other four I’ve seen (Butterfly Kiss, In this World, 9 Songs and The Killer Inside Me), I felt were interesting but largely flawed and problematic. With The Trip he seems to find his footing and rhythm, though the majority of what makes the film successful lies within the actors rather than Winterbottom, who is not as showy and annoying as his previous films have presented him.
What makes The Trip great is its two main actors, who one could fairly argue are rarely acting at all. The whole film is purely a series of conversations between them, that do not support the “plot” (if there is one) but simply serve as vehicles of laughter and genuine amusement. A film like this is dangerous to make because after a while, such continuous dialogue can become wearisome and tiring, but as I recently learned watching Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, endless dialogue about the same subject can indeed be interesting and worthy of our attention if it is crafted and delivered to the audience in portions that are not overwhelming and rarely vague. With The Trip, skilled comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon make their conversations so interesting and hilarious through the delivery of mostly improvised lines and a series of uncanny, brilliant impressions of other celebrities.
Then again, you can’t base an entire movie around just that. Or can you? I’m still unsure, but Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon seem to have done it. Their words are not unlike those of the mates most people will be familiar with, discussing their life and surroundings, and of course knocking at celebrities. It is mostly these impressions of celebrities that make the film original and stand out, and are so carefully scattered throughout the film that we never get tired of them. It seems impossible to get tired of them on first viewing of the film, not because they are well-placed in the movie but purely because they truly are laugh-out-loud hilarious. Every monologue, every sentence, every conversation is instilled with that comedian’s je ne sais quoi, which makes everything they say sound funny, regardless of the way they’re saying it.
It is important to note that The Trip is actually extended from a far longer British TV mini-series which lasted six episodes and altogether totaled nearly three hours of material, a third of which has been removed to leave this movie, arguably one of the best examples of truly successful dialogue-based humour in cinema, and also terrific improvisational skills. Improvised humour, it seems, is becoming more and more popular, with TV shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm thriving on it to gain the majority of their laughs. Improvised conversations, you will note, often seem to have a strange awkwardness of skewed timing and randomness, and while that is undeniably present in The Trip, it is in far smaller portions. Single jokes or references from which humour can be based are stretched out over whole scenes – we get not just one impression of Michael Caine (“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”) but several coming from both people, who then test their skills on doing Caine’s voice on others, many of whom are confused by it.
But the audience aren’t confused. We know clearly what the game is, and where things are going to end up, but the journey itself is what the film bases itself around. This is a car trip where, incredibly, the phrase “Are we there yet?” is never spoken (to my memory, anyway). Think about it: in a world where comedy films seem to be basing themselves more and more around travel, isn’t it a relief to see characters discussing, in real time, things that real people (albeit bored people) would discuss. The Trip is about real people, and more importantly real conversations, and derives its laughs not from complicated set-ups but simply from real-time events that are never over-the-top or extraordinary, but simply the usual dialogue we find ourselves speaking when time stretches out and the road seems never to end.