I kept meaning to see “The Trip,” Michael Winterbottom’s road movie starring British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, back when it was in theaters in 2010. I didn’t realize it had its origins in a BBC series of the same name, or that it was a sequel to another movie called A Cock and Bull Story that I never saw. I just knew Coogan from his guest appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm and had heard the film was funny. It never worked out—I have faint memories of canceling a solo theater visit on a return trip to New York—and the movie disappeared from my conscious. Then I had a few midday hours to kill this past week, and I found myself out of options. It was that depressing lull in the day when a nap feels like a form of weakness but continuing to work seems impossible. When you work from home, lunch takes about 10 minutes, and then you’re left with the prospect of exercise (healthy), writing (productive), or wasting time with TV and movies until the more vibrant early evening hours when the day takes on a renewed sheen of possibility.
I don’t think I need to tell you I chose the latter. Unfortunately, I had just come off a British crime drama binge, had seemingly exhausted every desirable comedy option, and was running out of ideas. My only choice, it seemed, was to go back to The League, a sort of depressing, half-funny dude sitcom with the usual dose of misogyny and homophobia. Watching it always makes me feel like I’m eating a third bag of Sour Patch kids on a weekend night; vaguely pleasurable, subtly soul-killing, and ultimately lonely. But then again, it’s better than going outside, right?
And then Netflix Instant saved my day. Under the category “Independent Comedies,” the robot who runs the service suggested a variety of films whose covers all featured skeletal men and women sort of pouting or staring cynically off camera. But then I saw it: The Trip! Suddenly, the afternoon was looking a bit brighter. I wrapped a brown blanket around myself, just because it was there, and settled in.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what played out over the next two hours was a beautiful, engrossing and funny film about two “friends” whose relationship stretched the very definition. The comedians play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, and it begins with Coogan calling Brydon and asking him to come along on a weeklong trip to the north country of England, where they’ll hit a variety of excellent restaurants and stay in excellent hotels, and a magazine will foot the bill. But Coogan’s invite is telling. For one, the girlfriend he was supposed to make the journey with has left for America. For two, he makes sure to tell Brydon that he’s asked several other people, all of whom were busy.
That’s our first sign of the highly competitive dynamic coursing between the two men. Brydon is an impressionist, and is relentless as he changes from one voice to the next. Coogan sees this as a personal flaw, a way to hide from the realities and troubles of the world, and resents him for the escape. It’s especially aggravating because the character Coogan plays is highly dissatisfied. He seduces women along the way and enjoys the benefits of his fame, but he craves an art-house credibility that seems out of his reach as a comic actor. His sensibilities tend toward the melancholy, and both he and Brydon have an affinity for poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth (though when Brydon recites their poems, it’s show and usually in the voice of a celebrity). But unlike Brydon, who seems to enjoy a comfortable family life with a loving wife and a child, Coogan is divorced and unhappy.
As they make their way through the north, stopping in at the premier restaurants of the region, the mutual irritation grows. They make each other laugh, and they impress women, but the friendship between the two exists on a strained platform. This, to me, felt all too familiar. When I was younger, say 18 to 22, it felt like I could live an adventurous life among friends, with romance as an exciting side dish that never became permanent. Things changed as I grew into my mid-20s, and suddenly the way older people committed to relationships and sometimes grew away from friends in favor of their family began to make sense. I imagine the last stage in this progression is the feeling inspired by having children, and even though I’m not there yet, I can see it on the horizon.
Friendship, in a strange way, began to feel shallow to me. Not in the sense that I abandoned my friends or stopped loving them, but in the sense that the spiritual fulfillment you get from them doesn’t, in the end, amount to much. There’s an actual life to be lived and intimate relationships to be formed, and when those begin to take precedence, the idea of living without them seems somehow inhuman. When Brydon finally returns to his wife, she sits on his lap at the kitchen table, and he says, “I think three days is the longest we should be apart.” She agrees, and you can feel how the absence affected them both. I wouldn’t have understood that as a younger person, but I get it now.
Coogan, for his part, returns to an impressive flat overlooking London. But Winterbottom makes it feel like a big, empty place, and the loneliness is acute and wrenching. It’s the director’s profound achievement that the locations he chose, from the lovely expanses of heather moorland, to the winding roads and rock faces of north England, to the solitary flat high above London, all served as gorgeous reflections of the nagging emptiness at Coogan’s core. Brydon recognizes the ambition, and he has his own resentment. He doesn’t enjoy the same fame and wealth that Coogan has earned for himself, and he goes out of his way to expose the self-centered nature of his friend, often in ways that border on cruel. But the worldview of the film is that while Brydon’s life falls short of perfection, he still enjoys a kind of contentment that Coogan envies.
In one of the film’s final scenes, Coogan rejects an offer to star in an HBO show that would see him spend up to seven years in America. “I can’t do it,” he says. “I have a family here. That’s all.” When he hangs up the phone and surveys the city at night through this picture window, a 44-year-old man who still strives, you can tell that his ambition has a new opponent in the desire for more traditional forms of love and stability.