(2010)3.5Perry SeibertImagine the British version of The Odd Couple set on a road trip, and you'll have the basic setup for Michael Winterbottom's often hilarious and offhandedly deep comedy The Trip.
U.K. comic Steve Coogan plays a fictionalized version of himself: a sarcastic, pessimistic, and miserable celebrity. When he's hired to write about the food at various inns throughout England's countryside, his girlfriend backs out on joining him for the voyage and he ends up bringing along his friend Rob (Rob Brydon, also playing a fictionalized version of himself). As the two travel by car from remote location to remote location and sample absolutely spectacular food, they bicker, do celebrity impressions, and talk to their significant others back home.
When people talk about two actors having "chemistry," it usually means something romantic. Coogan and Brydon, however, have comedic chemistry -- Steve's ceaseless sarcasm is so undiluted that he would be hard to be around for any length of time, while Brydon's invariably upbeat approach to life both smoothes over and accentuates Steve's deadpan derision toward everyone and everything in his path. When they fall into dueling Michael Caine impressions, it's not only hilarious to hear their different -- and accurate -- takes on the legendary English actor, but it's just as fun to watch Coogan belittle Brydon's version of Caine just because he can't stand that someone else can do it as well as he can. This scene, early in the film, establishes the comedic tone of the movie as well as their relationship.
If The Trip aspired to nothing more than a series of funny conversations between the two leads it would be an all-out success, but the movie also pulls off the neat trick of showing the full context of the lives these two men lead. Coogan's relationship with his girlfriend is on the rocks, he's miserable about the state of his career, and he's not as close to his son as he'd like to be. Brydon, on the other hand, is happily married -- a fact underlined by his amusing attempts to seduce his wife over the phone with his killer Hugh Grant impression -- and greatly enjoys his B-list celebrity status.
The depths of these characters are revealed in small, sometimes dramatic, scenes that are so deftly handled they don't kill the film's comedic momentum. None of the places they stay and eat has cell coverage, so Coogan is forced to go out to remarkably gorgeous natural vistas -- untainted country land -- to have ridiculous conversations with his agent or his girlfriend. During these moments, Winterbottom allows us to soak in the natural majesty while also making the point that Coogan is blind to the beauty around him.
However, all of this simply acts as a counterpoint to the meat of the movie -- the ceaselessly amusing, and often screamingly funny, conversations these two men share in the car and over meals. In addition to impersonating Caine, they ad-lib as Woody Allen, Roger Moore, Anthony Hopkins, and many other celebrities. Also, the charming dynamic between the two of them -- Brydon's unwavering pleasantness constantly chips away at Coogan's shell of morose sarcasm -- never ceases to amuse.
Michael Winterbottom is a formally and stylistically daring director who's willing to work in different moods and genres seemingly every time out. The Trip re-teams him with Coogan -- who starred in 24 Hour Party People, his superb biopic of the legendary music and entertainment impresario Tony Wilson. Their working relationship seems to bring out the best in each of them, proving their chemistry is just as good as Coogan and Brydon's.
This movie is probably too British to win the fictional Coogan the kind of career boost in America he desires -- an ambition driven home during Ben Stiller's pointed, self-mocking cameo in the film. But for the real Coogan, The Trip is as perfect an expression of his comedic skills as Alan Partridge, the British TV character that made him a household name in his home country.
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reprise their roles from Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story for this tale of a restaurant critic who reluctantly invites his obnoxious best friend on a business trip through the English countryside. Tapped by The Observer to review fine restaurants throughout the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, Steve (Coogan) finds himself without a traveling companion after his girlfriend decides not to go at the last minute. After being turned down by everyone he knows, Steve extends an invitation to Rob (Brydon), and together the pair attempts to navigate the winding back roads of rural England, impersonating popular celebrities and bickering endlessly along the way.