DVD Review: ‘The Trip’

"Was it funny? I laughed a few times. Is it the comedy of the year? Probably not."

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Perhaps I'm too sensitive a soul, but I've rarely found “discomfort humor” to be especially funny. You know what I'm talking about: Comedy that is predicated on the poor, insensitive and antisocial behavior of a feckless protagonist. The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm are probably the best reigning exemplars of the genre. And while I will still occasionally laugh at those shows, I find myself wincing most of the time, depressed at the short-sighted, petty emotional ruts that these people find themselves in.

This sort of discomfort humor is the metier of British comedian Steve Coogan, and is the central driving force behind his surprisingly downbeat and often melancholy comedy film The Trip, directed by Michael Winterbottom, and now available on DVD. The Trip came out earlier this year in art houses, and was billed – by certain critics and by peers of mine – as the gut-busting comedy of the year. Some declared it superior to [insert your favorite recent comedy film here]. I have now watched it, and I can declare that either my peers have a vastly different sense of humor than I, or that I was, again, too sensitive to truly understand the comedy of this film.

The Trip is a sad, gray meditation on ego and fame which is punctuated by a free-wheeling, improvised comedy film. Coogan plays the same jerkwad version of himself we saw in his last collaboration with Winterbottom Tristram Sandy: A Cock and Bull Story. That is: obsessed with fame, constantly frustrated by his lack of high-profile film work, and largely stymied by his own feckless, callow behavior. In The Trip, he finds himself recently single as well, so heap on an extra helping of sex-obsessed girl-craziness to his neuroses. This self-reflexive schtick can be funny, and in portions of The Trip it serves to keep the film afloat, but sometimes, and I'm guessing this was more Winterbottom's influence, the visible ego-stroking was staged as being pitiful and pathetic.

The story follows Coogan and his real-life peer and colleague Rob Brydon, also playing a version of himself, although I'm guessing a much more realistic version, as they take to the road, touring England's higher-profile restaurants for the purpose off reviewing them. Early in the film, Coogan announces that he knows little of food (he orders mere tomato soup at his first stop), and often relied on his American ex-girlfriend Emma for her opinions. He only asked Bryon along on the last minute, as he needed a companion. The bulk of The Trip is devoted to the playful (and sometimes not-so-playful) prodding the two men do to one another. We get to see Coogan on the phone with Emma (Claire Keelan), but it's not until near the end of the film that we learn the true meaning of their relationship.

Much of the two leads' banter is based on their friendly competition of celebrity impersonations. The impersonations are funny, and some of their clearly improvised dialogue did have me giggling. For anyone who has ever tried to impersonate Michael Caine (and we've all tried it once or twice, right?), it was a delight to see the two actors discuss the various minutiae involved in the task, all in their Michael Caine voices. These two men have been working together for so long, their improv banter comes across as breezy and effortless. For certain sections, The Trip is very funny.

But… But… I was left largely uncomfortable by the bare displays of selfish ego for much of the film, and I was a little brought down by how sad the whole affair was. And it seems to me this wasn't intended as tragic or as bittersweet. I sense that the filmmakers wanted the sadness to act as a tonic for the comedy. It ultimately ended up being just kind of sad.

From what I understand The Trip was originally a five-hour-long miniseries that ran on the BBC a few years ago, only to be edited down to a 112 minute feature film. The film never feels like chunks are missing, so I can only assume that the five-hour version is more of the same, and maybe contains some unrelated subplots. Was it a good film? I suppose it was perfectly well-made. Was it funny? I laughed a few times. Is it the comedy of the year? Probably not.