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The Shell of Life: Michael Winterbottom's The Trip
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2011-06-27 07:49:02
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He is an abandoned soul, a study of modern loneliness, who finds himself with a writing assignment for The Observer in Michael Winterbottom’s latest effort The Trip.  Then, Steve Coogan finds himself in the lurch – his lover goes to the US in search of scribbling glamour, and he is required to find a ready, though not ideal substitute.  The task: To review restaurants of haute couture through the Lake District.  (Is there any restaurant which does not do some ornate, buttered scallop creation?)  Rob Brydon, Coogan’s co-star in Tristram Shandy:  A Cock and Bull Story (2005), steps into the fray.

Food writing is itself an absurd activity.  Both writer and restaurant engage each other in a dance of collusion, the meals being false weapons of war in the conflict of image.  Even a negative review is itself a form of well-studied (or nibbled) hypocrisy: One is, after all, getting a free meal, even if the drink might resemble some tropical sludge imitation.  That absurdity is simply a sampling of what follows. 

Both Brydon and Coogan joust with an arsenal of impressions (Michael Cain is a recurring favourite).  Who is the true actor?  The unabashed and perennially happy clown who does well regarded impressions or the aspiring bitter Hollywood lead?  These encounters are accompanied by rich lashings of poetry from Brydon over stunning, though at times glum scenery, and sumptuous cooking scenes.  Coogan envisages himself as an acting genius, as yet undiscovered by the unseeing, ignorant Hollywood circuit.  A dream featuring Ben Stiller conveys that insatiable desire: all ‘the brothers’ of the director circuit (Coen, Wachowski), wish to recruit him.  He envies Brydon’s well adjusted domesticity and his modest expectations, despite mocking them savagely.

When he is not taking in the scenery of the Lake District, or desperately seeking reception for his mobile in various beautiful fields and summits, Coogan is engaged in vigorous bed-hopping.  ‘Did you,’ asks Brydon after the stay at one hotel, where Coogan encounters a Polish receptionist, ‘cement Anglo-Polish relations?’  The true male seducer may well have women, but he can never have a woman as such.  Don Juan is eventually abandoned, and the pain of that realization grows with each scene.    

Coogan is emotionally awkward, with a good lashing of vanity.  Not only must he have his own room, but each room must be larger than what is given to Brydon.  He behaves in a self-mocking way, much like his own creation, Partridge.  He is his own parody, and Winterbottom makes full use of it.  Nothing is sacred in cutting a figure down to size.

The energetic exchanges will amuse, but not all audiences will appreciate the fast-paced dialogue.  It has been criticized as being a touch too clever, a hint of high minded school charm.  Winterbottom does make his audience assume a good deal, and doesn’t talk down to them.  Along with that, he has managed to inject a discomforting sadness throughout.  Coogan is a shell, and projects that with unrelenting skill.  Brydon is very much fulfilled, returning to domestic bliss, with wife and child.  A statement from Albert Camus comes to mind as a kind of epitaph for the modern man, and Coogan’s plight: he fornicated and read the papers.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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Emanuel Paparella2011-06-27 17:10:19
Camus' statement is quite apt. What comes to my mind is Eliot's poem The Wasteland or Kierkegaard's "sickness unto death," to be sick and not even to know it, or Jung's "Modern Man in Search of a Soul, which are also sad commentaries on the loneliness and alienation of modern man.

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