As a performing art form, mimicry has never interested me; it didn’t interest me while I was watching Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, either. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play fictionalized versions of themselves on a road trip through northern England, staying at quaint inns and eating lavish gourmet meals. They are frenemies, a British take on the emotionally sloppy Hollywood bromance: Coogan and Brydon’s conflict remains intact and nobody learns any great lesson at the end.
Throughout the film, Coogan and Brydon riff with competing vocal impersonations of actors such as Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Richard Burton, etc. In one scene, Coogan and Brydon visit Coogan’s parents, who listen patiently while Brydon trots out Hugh Grant and Michael Caine (again). Their polite smiles don’t hide the fact they are somewhat mystified by this minor display of talent; I felt the same way.
Thinking about it later, I realized that all acting is mimicry – at best, a performance mimics something emotionally resonant, but the trappings of speech and bearing are elemental building blocks for a performer. What’s intriguing about The Trip is that Coogan and Brydon are also mimicking themselves, even as they mimic others. They exaggerate the vanity of actors who feel they aren’t getting the roles or respect they should; they compete and nitpick each other’s impersonations, zeroing in on incorrect emphasis or technique. Through it all, we see their bottomless need for an audience, even a hostile one.
The mimic comedy is played against the backdrop of a tour Coogan had intended to take with his girlfriend – expensive restaurants and cozy bedrooms that initially point up what might be missing from each scene (romance) and ultimately (charmingly) underline the value of companionship. None of it holds together especially well, maybe because the film has been edited down from a 6-part BBC miniseries (the movie is an hour shorter than the combined TV runtime.) There doesn’t seem to be a connection between Winterbottom’s staccato shots of food being prepared and the actors’ inevitable disinterest in it; Coogan is supposed to be working on a newspaper feature but the movie never shows him writing, nor does he seem to know anything about food. (One review called the film “a foodie’s delight,” but to me it reinforced the idea that pictures of food are almost always unappetizing.)
The scenery is gorgeous but not lush – the setting is winter. Coogan wanders beautiful countryside by himself mostly for the singleminded purpose of getting a cell phone signal; his calls are almost always letdowns to him. Meanwhile, Brydon pines for his wife and infant child, engaging in mildly amusing and definitively unsexy phone sex using a Hugh Grant voice. (Again, this plays better upon recollection – the idea that Hugh Grant was once an international go-to leading man is mystifying; Brydon nails the comparison even if the scene isn’t immediately satisfying.)
Winterbottom’s thesis might be that most of what we do is mimicking the lives we see others leading, and perhaps we’re missing something by not being present in the moment. Lip service is paid to the importance of family, although Brydon seems only marginally more content that Coogan. (Brydon does get a happy reunion with his wife at the end, pointedly contrasted against Coogan’s aloneness.)
The Trip was followed in 2014 by The Trip to Italy, again a TV series that was edited down to a movie. The concept appears to be identical, along with many of the jokes. Still, I wouldn’t mind a trip to Italy.