"Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana." I’ve watched writer-director Michael Winterbottom’s four “Trip” comedies more than I’ve watched any other films. I’ve streamed them, watching just five or ten minutes at a time, or repeatedly all the way through, to savor every line or lush vista of the films’ stunning locations.
The movies have helped me stay rational during the insanity of Donald Trump’s trademarked Covid19 virus era that has no end in sight. I have no plan to ever stop watching the “Trip” films either, so there.
The “Trip” films have taught me things about comedy that I would otherwise not have been privy to, namely how seamlessly such a satisfying comic franchise could be constructed and executed. Coogan and Brydon provide a masterclass in timing. They bounce impressions off one another in an ongoing process of improving their craft as actors of impeccable skills. Coogan plays straight man to Brydon's sidekick relation. Talent is like a nude, you know it when you see it. These are two very talented and hard-working individuals with a knack for naturalism. They make it all look so, so easy.
I can’t say the films are flawless, but most of what I take issue with rests with my own desire for more. I want to see more of the lovely historic locations that Coogan and Brydon go on at length about as if they were tour guides or erudite participants in filmic podcast. I want to see more Russian-doll layering of Brydon and Coogan doing kooky film-within-the-film skits, as when they play Italian Mafioso and Brydon gives Coogan the blade right in the garden, I mean the gut.
Now that our bickering, impersonation-prone tour guides (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) have taken audiences through the English Midlands, around Italy, off to Spain, and around Greece, their work appears to be done. Michael Winterbottom has stated as much. “Keep ‘em wanting more” is an old entertainment tenant that’s hard to argue with. Still, I wish there could be another installment. Wales perhaps.
Everything about the “Trip” movies is designed to disarm the viewer so that when Steve Coogan, or more frequently Rob Brydon, deliver yet another punishingly funny punchline or hilarious Michael Caine, Robert De Niro, or Sean Connery impression, we bite — hook, line, and sinker. The comedy comes in measured doses for maximum impact.
One of Winterbottom’s many ruses hides in the set-up for our fearless duo’s weeklong vacations that ostensibly come at the behest of The Observer and or The New York Times for a series of restaurant reviews for which only Brydon will do any pen-to-paper work. It sounds plausible enough. Who needs to hunt down any supposed article when we’ve already seen the movie? But if you do go digging on Google, you’ll find out soon enough that no such reviews exist. Winterbottom doesn’t even take a screenwriting credit even though every line of seemingly improvised speech is pre-written. Clever, very clever stuff.
Then there’s Coogan and Brydon playing near versions of themselves that seem perfectly appropriate. Coogan is a womanizing narcissist actor who values his seven BAFTA trophies more than his family. Brydon plays the affable but height-challenged light entertainer with a complex or two capable of keeping his egotistical pal in check, at least some of the time.
Herein lies one of the series most invisible comic mechanisms. It seems on face value that Steve Coogan steals the lion’s share of the spotlight away from Rob Brydon, but in reality the comedy is tilted to celebrate Brydon's keen wit. It’s this well-shrouded element of dramatic tension that allows the films to breathe with serious actorly camaraderie built on mutual respect for craft as it is on a pad of compatibility that points toward untold depths.
For as mismatched as Coogan and Brydon might seem, their friendship is thoroughly convincing for the compromises that they are willing to make for each other. Their ability to openly criticize one another takes the comedy to another level as well. "That ain't you mate."
It has taken ten years to complete four “Trip” films. However invisibly Brydon and Coogan have grown as actors and as people, the evidence is in plain view. Their “Trip” characters are driven by a love of world history, literature, celebrities, acting craft, and film culture that is infectious. The audience is in on the joke whether we realize it or not. Their way of relating to each other, and to the world around them, is endemic of a uniquely male artistic approach to life, travel, food, sex, and to their audience. The jokes can be pointed, and at times on the rare side, but never raw. Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan, and Rob Brydon are much too sophisticated for that. Go on, savor another bite.
Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.
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