Roving thoughts and provocations

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Steve Coogan’s Grand Ambitions

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip

Like many of the masterpieces of Western culture to which it humbly invites comparison—Ulysses, Endgame, Pierrot Le Fou—Michael Winterbottom’s new movie, The Trip, does not sound promising in paraphrase. Two successful middle-aged actors take a tour of high-end restaurants in the North of England in order to write an article for The Observer newspaper. The pair bicker, trade impersonations of their cinematic heroes, struggle to come up with interesting things to say about the finicky and pretentious meals they are fed (“Hotter than I would’ve expected,” etc.), and that is more or less it. The gastro-tourists return home, the film ends.

It is hard to say exactly how Winterbottom and his two leading men transmute this rather lenten premise into the artistic feast The Trip becomes, but humor certainly plays a large part. After a comparatively tame first quarter of an hour, the theater where I went to see it was engulfed in a ninety-minute tsunami of laughter. What we were laughing at, first and foremost, was the bantering, rivalrous friendship between the two main characters, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

The two actors play themselves (as they did in A Cock and Bull Story, Winterbottom’s resourceful and disheveled 2006 meta-adaptation of Tristram Shandy) but only in the way in which Larry David plays himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm—or Chaucer plays himself in The Canterbury Tales—which is to say that “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon” are ruthless self-parodies.

This dimension of the film will no doubt mean more to audiences on the other side of the pond. The Trip originally aired last winter as a six-part TV series in Britain, where both actors are national celebrities. Coogan (who is famous enough to have been targeted by the News of the World phone-hacking operation) has spawned a long lineup of grotesque comic figures, by far the most famous and beloved of which is Alan Partridge, a failed talk show host (he ends up a local radio DJ) whose narcissistic personality disorder was laid bare in two sitcoms, Knowing Me Knowing You…with Alan Partridge (1994) and I’m Alan Partridge (1997), both of which are now firmly established in the canon of English television comedy.

With his fetishistic parochialism, supreme literal-mindedness, and rancid bourgeois complacency, Partridge was a parody not just of English talk show hosts but of contemporary England itself. As with Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers before him or David Brent of The Office after him, England embraced a character who mercilessly held a mirror up to its foibles. Partridge’s catchphrases (“Kiss my face!” “Jurassic Park!” “Ah-ha!”) are repeated with gusto in pubs and student union bars the country over.

Unlike Partridge, who merely craves celebrity and the material possessions (like his cherished Bang and Olufsen stereo system) this celebrity entails, the Coogan we meet in The Trip has immortal longings in him. It is fifteen years after his early success and his career has stalled. He is trying to break into American movies (several of which, like Tropic Thunder and The Other Guys, Coogan has actually appeared in) but is having a hard time getting taken seriously, which is what he seems to long for above all. One of several dream sequences features Coogan being led around a sun-dazzled swimming pool in L.A. by Ben Stiller, who tells him of all the “auteurs”—Noah Baumbach, the Coen Brothers, Ridley Scott—who are desperate to work with “The Coogs.” The scene recalls the notorious erotic reveries of I’m Alan Partridge, in which Partridge, dressed in colorful jumper, vulcanized-rubber thong, and platform shoes, offers to lap dance for Tony Hayers, the Chief Commissioning Editor of the BBC, from whom he hopes to coax a second series of his talk show.

On top of everything else, Coogan is sick of being identified with Partridge. In this respect he resembles Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s fictional alter ego, who is constantly being mistaken for his most famous character, the erotically hyperactive Gil Carnovsky:

“It’s Carnovsky!” “Hey, want to see my underwear, Gil?” In the beginning, when he heard someone call after him out on the street, he would wave hello to show what a good sport he was. It was the easiest thing to do, so he did it. Then the easiest thing was to pretend that he was hearing things, to realize that it was happening in a world that didn’t exist. They had mistaken impersonation for confession and were calling out to a character who lived in a book. Zuckerman tried taking it as praise—he had made real people believe Carnovsky real too—but in the end he pretended he was only himself, and with his quick, small steps hurried on.

In The Trip Coogan too pretends that he is only himself, though one of the film’s most mischievous jokes is that this self has much more of Partridge in it than Coogan would like to acknowledge.

Brydon is a less ambitious, more contented figure who has nevertheless won great fame as a radio and television personality owing to his gift for mimicry, which he displays on the merest pretext. It is through his ironic eyes that we are often invited to see the self-serious Coogan. He is Sancho Panza to Coogan’s Don Quixote (one of many parallels that the film, in its modest and light-footed manner, makes gently explicit). The two are engaged in a never-ending bout of one-upmanship, though the ulcerated sensitivity of Coogan’s pride—he seems capable of being offended by anything—puts him at a clear disadvantage. When an old lady in charge of admissions at one of the Lake District cottages where Wordsworth lived asks for Brydon’s autograph but not Coogan’s, the latter’s resentment is palpable.

Brydon enjoys taunting his companion and, as with Hal’s jokes at Falstaff’s expense, his banter is often laced with venomous truth. At one point, as they are sitting over one of their ornate meals, Brydon reads aloud from Hazlitt’s essay on Coleridge: “It was not to be supposed that Mr. Coleridge could keep on at the rate he set off; he could not realize all he knew or thought, and less could not fix his desultory ambition; other stimulants supplied the place, and kept up the intoxicating dream, the fever and the madness of his early impressions.” To which Coogan lamely quips, momentarily slipping into Partridge-esque obtuseness, “I don’t do impressions.”

In fact, Coogan, like Brydon, does do impressions. At times —and again this may sound highly unpromising to anyone who hasn’t actually seen it—The Trip can seem like little more than a pastiche of the duo’s impersonations of everyone from Michael Caine and Anthony Hopkins to Woody Allen and Sean Connery. (Near the end we even see Coogan teaching Brydon how to impersonate a sonar.) Both of them are gifted mimics, though Brydon has the edge, and this—however much he tries to pretend otherwise—rankles the hypercompetitive Coogan.

In one of the film’s most pathetic scenes we see him practicing his voices in front of the hotel bathroom mirror. It is typical of The Trip that a moment that should seem nakedly intimate is at the same time shrewdly self-conscious, for we are here being reminded of the laborious effort and preparation that lies behind what appears to be spontaneous. Ambling, unbuttoned naturalism (much of the film was improvised) and honed artifice keep close quarters in Winterbottom’s work and are always throwing one another into relief.

Along with many other great TV shows of the last two decades (The Simpsons, South Park, Brasseye, The Office, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Seinfeld) Knowing Me Knowing You and I’m Alan Partridge were animated by a palpable hatred of television and of the kind of delusional, solipsistic individual that a world dominated by television tends to produce. Although The Trip directs some of its parodic energies at television—in one of the funniest scenes Coogan is inspired by the rural landscape, with its drystone walls and undulating hills, to confess his desire to appear in a costume drama—this is a piece of work with a richer sense of cultural inheritance. (It must be said, however, that The Trip is less successful as a movie than as a TV show. Coogan’s complaints to his agent about not wanting to do English TV anymore obviously carried a greater charge when they were being broadcast on English TV. Some sublime moments from the TV version have also been cut; the greatest loss is probably Coogan’s impromptu disquisition on the acting style of Richard Gere, which is thankfully available on YouTube.)

Like Joyce or Borges or Godard, Winterbottom has a ravenous appetite for prior works of art; aside from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, his previous films include adaptations of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. At moments The Trip seems to want to contain not simply all of cinematic history (through Coogan and Brydon’s endless impersonations) but all of Western literature as well. There are allusions to Don Quixote, Boswell’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, and Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, among others. As the film progresses, we come to see how the relationship between Coogan and Brydon mirrors the famous friendships in these books.

These allusions are largely ironic; they have the effect of underscoring the smallness, in world-historical terms, of Coogan’s grand ambitions. The film is excellent on the vagaries of belatedness, the way in which we simultaneously relish the wealth of the cultural past and cringe before its intimidating mastery. Few things in the film feel more dourly contemporary than a brief shot of the Wordsworth cottage gift shop, with its shelves of Wordsworth CDs and other memorabilia. (“We are so far advanced in the Arts and Sciences,” reads one sentence from Hazlitt’s Coleridge essay, “that we live in retrospect, and dote on past achievements.” Hazlitt was himself an obsessive quoter; like the dialogue in The Trip, his prose is richly sown with the words of others.)

As in a Beckett play—Beckett is yet another presiding presence—nothing really happens in The Trip, dramatically speaking. The pair seem doomed to repeat themselves ad nauseum—and not even to repeat themselves, for it is the words of others, on the whole, that they repeat. “That’s been done before,” says Coogan near the start, in response to Brydon’s suggestion that they write their newspaper article not about the fancy restaurants they are going to visit, but about what “real people” eat. “This is 2010,” Brydon shoots back: “Everything’s been done before. All you can do is to do it slightly differently or to do it better.” Coogan considers this a moment and then grudgingly concedes, in a pedantic tone that reeks of Partridge: “To a certain extent, that’s true.”

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