“The Trip”: Mid-life crisis and “modernist cuisine”
by Judith Newton
(First published in The Redwood Coast Review, Winter 2012.)
In an act of utter haplessness last weekend I scratched my cornea with the tip of an agave and had to lie in a darkened room, which is how I ended up watching Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” three separate times—twice with an eye patch and once without. (It was better without the patch.) The film, once a BBC2 TV miniseries, stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, two British comedians, playing hyped up versions of themselves, who spend much of the movie doing competing impressions of Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, and Hugh Grant with a little Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and Woody Allen thrown in. The film is hilarious, but it has a depth that surprises you. I watched it the first time for the comedy, the second for the depth, and the third time because I’m a food writer and it is also about food.
The formal reason for “the trip” is that a British Sunday newspaper has commissioned Coogan to do a celebrity guest piece on fine dining in Northern England, specifically in Yorkshire and the Lakes. I say “fine dining,” but much of the cuisine might be called “Modernist, “a form of cooking that combines science and artistry with high inventiveness, an obsession with novelty, and a good deal of precision and control. (Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, a six volume, 2,438 page production, “destined to reinvent cooking,” came out in March of 2011.) Modernist chefs are given to slow cooking foods “in their own juices” by enclosing shellfish, say, in a vacuum-sealed bag. They are fond of combining discordant ingredients into dishes such as “duck fat lollipops with nuts,” an appetizer on which our heroes also dine. They have been known to convert your vodka aperitif into a frozen meringue (using liquid nitrogen) right at your table, and they are prone to turning the most humble of vegetables like celery and beets into exotic foams. (I ate a tiny dish of celery foam in Barcelona once, where Modernist cooking reigns supreme. It was delicious, and it was also the tamest dish on the tasting menu. Think Gaudi architecture with its wild and playful fusion of seashells, mushrooms, and melting curves, and then think “food.”)
A running joke is that neither Coogan nor Brydon knows or cares much about food. It was Coogan’s American girlfriend who chose the itinerary for what was to have been a romantic food adventure rather than mere research. But the girlfriend dumps Coogan before the trip begins and leaves for New York to become a “hot” writer, or so she hopes. Coogan asks Brydon, both friend and rival, to go in her place, being careful to explain, since Coogan seems wary of close connections, that everyone else he asked had been “too busy” to go. Each day of the six-day journey features a visit to a famous restaurant with multiple shots of the kitchen, the servers, and the food. And it’s all about art, precision, and performance. We see the staff turning out roast cod, truffled ravioli, and spiced cauliflower with split second timing; we watch them decorating plates with precise dots of horseradish cream and parsnip coulis; and we hear them wishing for tweezers to better arrange slivers of whatever it is (faux twigs?) that are standing on end in the duck foie mousse with shredded radishes and smoked kale. This high-wire cuisine elicits some lowbrow comments from our heroes. Coogan finds a tomato soup “quite tomato-y” and “soupy”; Brydon tries for sophistication by observing that a foamy green aperitif (mallow leaves, ginger beer, tea, and whiskey) “tastes of a childhood garden,” but Coogan quickly points out that the consistency is “a bit like snot” though “it tastes great.”
Coogan is far more concerned about losing his girlfriend, seducing female receptionists and photographers, and becoming “hot” in his movie career, especially in the U.S. Brydon, more settled in his work, warns, “never be hot; always be warm” because when you’re in a “supernova” moment, where do you go from there? But neither man, each in his forties, has come to terms with the haplessness of life, with how it often fails to turn out quite the way you’d wanted, with how you occasionally poke your eye with an agave. Brydon may be more reconciled than Coogan to his “warm” career, but he slides through social situations by doing nonstop impressions and has a compulsive need to imitate Hugh Grant when trying to romance his wife. Like Coogan, Brydon has not yet achieved a solid sense of self, which is why both men engage in a continuous and sometimes companionable competition over who does the best impression of James Bond (“When I kill, I kill for Queen and country”), over whose singing voice has the widest range, and who is really the least capable of confronting “reality.” Brydon compares the woman-chasing Coogan to Coleridge who, as his creativity declined, took refuge in stimulants like opium. Coogan, pretending to deliver a eulogy at Brydon’s future funeral, claims that behind every joke Brydon ever told lay “a cry for help.”
Hovering over their mid-life angst is Wordsworth, the great British poet who had his own anxieties about growing up. In “Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth mourns the loss of those “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” that marked his youthful encounters with the natural world. But he also claims that the “beauteous forms” of nature return to him amid the unprofitable stir and fever of the world, bringing him “tranquil restoration,” prompting acts “of kindness and of love,” allowing him at times to become “a living soul” and to “see into the life of things.” More than Michael Caine or Sean Connery, Wordsworth is a hard act to follow. Both Coogan and Brydon occasionally pause to take in the beauties of the landscape and Brydon even recites a bit of “Tintern Abbey” in the wild terrain of the Yorkshire Dales. But Brydon can’t resist spoiling the moment, as Coogan points out, by repeating the most moving lines in a funny voice. Meanwhile, Coogan’s relation to nature is most often suggested by the many scenes in which we see him displayed against the backdrop of a majestic lake or hill trying to get a connection on his cell phone. He calls his ex-girlfriend whom he helplessly insults, his troubled son, Joe, whom he does seem to miss, and his agent, Max, who finally offers him an HBO pilot in the States.
And then it’s on to the next meal, which brings us back to food. What is Modernist Cuisine doing in a movie about competitive male bonding and mid-life angst? From one perspective Modernist food—and writing about Modernist food—could stand for something “hot.” And since neither hero knows or cares much about the food, this could enforce a sense that both lead rather tepid lives. But the film’s take on Modernist Cuisine, and life, is more complex than that. Brydon reads a review of a restaurant they have just visited which claims that, despite all the talk of invention and variety, the food was as “formulaic as McDonald’s.” Oh, ouch. Is Modernist Cuisine meant to suggest how what is “hot” can quickly become “warm,” and then, well, room temperature? Is writing about Modernist Cuisine becoming lukewarm as well? Like the article Coogan’s ex plans to write for Esquire Magazine on how Las Vegas prostitutes are “good girls gone bad.” Hasn’t that been overdone? Maybe being “hot” is not all that it’s cracked up to be, at least not as your primary life goal.
So is the film’s Modernist Cuisine Coleridge at his height or Coleridge in decline and living “on the sound of his own voice?” Perhaps both. But there’s another way to see fine dining in this movie and in life. Early in the film Coogan compares the duck fat lollipops to his career: “it’s just like my comedy. It’s familiar but [there’s] something different about it.” Both cuisine and comedy are performance, and in this film they’re as skillfully managed as a well-done London show. Perhaps Modernist Cuisine—and finely tuned impressions—may be seen as manageable perfections. Life itself cannot be perfect, but small perfections may be achieved. Haplessness can be cordoned off—at least at dinner—and with eight, twelve, or twenty dishes, dinner can last a very long time. There is an existential comfort, a “tranquil restoration” to be had in small perfections that is very real.
The last day of the journey, however, finds Coogan and Brydon sitting outside on a “sunny day in England” exclaiming “ummm” and “this is glorious” over a traditional “fried breakfast” consisting of scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, tomatoes, and blood pudding. And it is then we know that more lasting and more ordinary pleasures have won out. Brydon goes home to his wife and child, still imitating Hugh Grant, but happily dandling the baby. And Coogan goes home to an empty apartment with a smashing view of London from above. He opens the window, appears to reflect, and then leaves a cell phone message for his agent. He will not do the HBO pilot. “I’m not spending seven years in the U.S.,” he says, “I’ve got kids.” Connection, especially family connection, is what matters most in the end, along with rediscovering the charms of what is ordinary, familiar, communal, British, and widely shared: a heightened sensitivity to nature, “a sunny day in England,” and “a fried breakfast;” English comfort food.