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“The Trip”: supposedly about the food?

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have paired up again in a new movie called The Trip  and I actually got to see it in an actual movie theater Thursday! First time I’ve been in a theater since Ratatouille came out. (Hadn’t realized that was going to be a foodie movie; at the time I just wondered why they didn’t make good movies like that for grownups anymore.)

I was going to see The Trip anyway because I’d seen Tristram Shandy several years ago on disk and got bitten by Coogan and Brydon’s backstage banter. I was looking forward to seeing how the pair,  who had played exaggerated versions of themselves in the first movie, were planning to stretch their dueling Robert deNiro and Al Pacino impressions from the end credits of Tristram Shandy–by far the best shtick in the whole thing–to a two-hour buddy road trip format.

And The Trip was also supposed to be about food–specifically, the current state of northern England’s upscale eateries (now apparently as haute as anywhere on the continent) and the shockingly savage and comical food reviewing traditions of British news media.

So I dragged my husband with me to the matinee and promptly started disregarding the “please, no talking during the film” signs. What fun is it to sit there not giggling horribly as Coogan and Brydon get on the road north to Yorkshire, or saying nothing to my mate as they try to correct each other’s Michael Caine impressions and improve on them in increasingly loud voices while being served all manner of square food on long rectangular plates lapped with flavored foams à la Adrià? With the inevitable scallops for starters, and a number of historical interludes–a sleep in one of Coleridge’s beds, visiting the church ruins in a town where Ian McKellan did not actually grow up, but it’s got the same name, so it counts?

The truth is, of course, that The Trip is much less about food (despite several spliced-in foodie snippets of what’s going on in the kitchens and pans where tasting menus are being prepared) than about love, loss, what’s left to look forward to in one’s encroaching middle-40s, and how to impress girls with your Michael Caine (or Al Pacino) impressions at a 3-star restaurant in the Yorkshire dales or the Lake District.

Of course, the sixth or seventh rendition of Michael Caine (interspersed with Pacino and friends) starts to wear even on our intrepid actors-almost-playing-themselves as they grapple with the hearts they refuse to admit are pinned to their sleeves. It turns out there’s a solid reason for this: The Trip started out as a BBC2 series last fall and was edited into the movie format that’s out now in Pasadena and elsewhere in the US. So some of the repetitive shtick and the behind-the-scenes-in-the-kitchen shots start to make sense. But from the TV reviews and interviews in The Guardian I kind of wish now that I’d gotten to see the series instead. Once a week for six episodes makes the repetitive bickering sessions more tolerable. Unfortunately, a lot of the fresh bits that weren’t repeated from show to show were cut out for time in the final film–because they didn’t think American audiences would know the references. Too bad–I’d like to have heard the Shirley Bassey impression contest just once, and I hope when the DVD comes out it includes the original TV episodes as well as the edited film version.

Well, so, Michael Caine aside (though he’d probably have been a better actual food reviewer) what about the recherché food in these extremely high-tone getaways? British haute cuisine has clearly gotten to a point where every modern upscale restaurant now serves its dishes on long rectangular plates in neat geometric configurations with Joan Miró-like dabs of sauce and chic foams. (A bit of irony for more than just this series: Ferran Adrià, who started the whole foam phenomenon, suddenly announced this spring that he’s closing El Bulli this month. A lot of interviewers and adulators are probably feeling a bit left out in the sun just now.)

Unfortunately a lot of the flourishes are lost on Coogan and Brydon, neither of whom are dedicated foodies. They’re regular diners who like fine food but aren’t always at home with the cutting edge stylings of molecular gastronomy–probably a lot like most of their viewers.

The food served at almost every stop is seafood (will Brydon ever stop choosing the scallops for an appetizer?), game, beef and lamb done more or less geometrically on rectangular white plates with precisely calculated daubs of sauce or foams, and geometric dessert assortments. All tasty enough–mostly, anyway–but ultimately interchangeable in style and therefore discountable, with the exception of one oddly original drink.

Actually, the one restaurant I’d want to dine in was the one at an inn where Coleridge slept, because the food there was a little more traditionally prepared and plated and looked like it would taste good as food (some of those cylindrical numbers just don’t say “dinner” to me), and because they served Brydon a plate of little chocolate desserts that looked properly desserty and delicious rather than artily deconstructed.

All of which brings us to the verdict:

The Trip is, even in edited form, a bit rambling and uneven, and at an hour and 47 minutes, also a bit long for what it is. It’s still worth a viewing. Coogan and Brydon earn their keep here even though the film/TV series is supposed to be quasi-fictional and the lines between what’s real and what’s made up sometimes blur. Their reactions to the food and often to each other are generally true to life and thought. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll ignore most of the food except for the chocolate dessert, which looks fairly gooey and sinful, and that one cocktail, which looks rather green, and not necessarily a good green. When you’ve had your fill of the bickering and Sean Connery and Michael Caine and Robert deNiro and Al Pacino, you’ll tune it out on the sixth or seventh runthrough and admire the countryside, how rough some of it is, how dramatic the rock formations, how well the cinematography was done–because it really is beautiful countryside and really tough hiking, some of it, even though some of that hiking is for the purpose of finding adequate cell phone reception. Jane Austen was right to have her heroines look forward to a trip in the Lake District. Not that Coogan and Brydon ever mention her, but it’s worth noting all the same. They mention almost everything else.

Which, when I think about it now, is exactly the spirit of Tristram Shandy–both the book and the film they made of it. Find that film next, or even in preference to The Trip. It’s punchier and sillier and the dueling impressions come off just right in smaller portions.

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