Of the many ways to make movies—good ones—director Michael Winterbottom’s method might be the trickiest. (It’s why he’s never a sure thing.) Rather than taking Kubrickian care with every detail or working the material for months like Mike Leigh, Winterbottom usually goes for sheer speed, pulling comedy, personal history and rawness into a whirlwind of collaboration. When it works, like with his propulsive Madchester reminiscence, 24 Hour Party People (2002), no other filmmaker seems as naturally talented or fleet on his feet.
Depth, though, can sometimes elude him, even when taking on subjects like terrorism and psychosis—which is why The Trip, an ingenious road movie filled with banter and barely veiled jealously, must count as some kind of vindication. The weave of this film is as familiar as any side-seat passenger could imagine: two longtime pals cruising, listening to tunes (or making noises of their own) and stopping for grub. In true Winterbottom style, he uses what’s readily available: his friends the motormouthed actor-comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who basically play themselves, plus the fashionable setup of an eating tour of England’s North, providing the director with plenty of Top Chef moments for sizzling scallops.
Quietly, though, this amuse-bouche of a setup (culled from six episodes of BBC television) blooms into a meal of majestic agony. Coogan and Brydon’s competitive bursts of celebrity impressions—Michael Caine comes in for special attention—take on a tone of clingy desperation, as does their jockeying for status in taunts of love, marriage and career. The Trip is a tale of middle-aged men, both successful but lacking in contentment, stranded in a pastoral landscape that mocks them with its permanence. Finally, Winterbottom has become the only director ready to take on the aching novels of Martin Amis.