I hate the word pretentious. It’s mostly used by shallow thinkers and people who don’t appreciate artists taking big risks or being ambitious. And yet when I look back at The Trip, the new Michael Winterbottom movie starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, pretentious keeps coming up in my head.
Funny comes up as well. The film is often very funny, and the best parts of the movie - which is about the two comics taking a tour of Northern England eateries - are the parts that are about how two funny people can be so competitive. Brydon and Coogan have different enough sensibilities that their friction is truly engaging, and leads to absolute hilarity.
Hunger comes up. The eateries aren’t just the skeleton upon which to hang the jokes but a central part of the movie. Winterbottom’s camera spends plenty of time in the kitchens of these restaurants, watching gourmet dishes being put together. It’s like a mash of the Food Network and Comedy Central, and it can leave you very hungry.
But then there’s the pretension. Brydon and Coogan are playing versions of themselves, with Brydon being the good-natured family man who is happy with his career while Coogan is the self-loathing bed hopper who longs to be taken more seriously. I’m not terribly familiar with Brydon, but the film portrays him as a guy who does impressions and funny voices and who is beloved by the middle of the road crowd. Coogan, on the other hand, wants to be seen as smart and edgy, and wants to make dramas. When the two men come to a beautiful ancient rock formation Brydon wants to quietly take it in, while Coogan wants to climb and conquer it while also prattling on about the geological history of the region.
And here’s where the pretension comes in - it isn’t just that Coogan is playing this uptight, unhappy version of himself but that the film really wants to do something dramatic with that. Now, that isn’t particularly pretentious at all, and it’s welcome to include heartfelt drama in comedy. But it’s the rabbit hole of Coogan playing tormented and serious as a Coogan who wants to be seen as tormented and serious that keeps tripping me up. I kept expecting the film to end on a joke about this, to undercut it, but it doesn’t. It ends on a really somber note, which only makes me think that Coogan really wants to be seen as tormented and serious.
Or maybe he’s just taking the piss, as the Brits might say, and he’s laughing at me right now. In the end this weird pretension doesn’t faze me, it simply feels like a lost opportunity for comedy. I think Winterbottom could have explored the same issues about creativity and neediness and ego that he does at the end of the film while also being very funny about it. He certainly had the raw materials on hand.
Rob Brydon especially is a wonderful screen presence. His penchant to break into voices or turn everything into a bit is almost irritating, but there’s a sweetness to him - especially in comparison to the venal Coogan - that overcomes the annoying. There’s a puppy-like quality.
The Trip is often hilarious, and I quite liked it. I just never got past Coogan.