Fans of British actor/comedian Steve Coogan ("I'm Alan Partridge," the outstanding lead in "24 Hour Party People") tend to fall into two camps: the Anglophile hyper-obsessives (believe me, they exist) and the casual fan where this writer finds himself (though there's probably a third and fourth level of indifference and unawareness). But both sides of the coin should be pleased with the results of his latest collaboration with Rob Brydon.
Edited down from a BBC TV sitcom comprised of six episodes at 30 minutes a piece, Michael Winterbottom's condensed, greatest-hits version of "The Trip" for U.S. audiences runs a brisk 70 minutes. Slight, and simultaneously very funny with deeper undertones than one would expect, it manages to still feel like a stand-alone film and not just the best parts of a longer TV show.
Those who know the Steve Coogan/Rob Brydon dynamic -- illustrated in Winterbottom's amusing, but only semi-successful meta-comedy, "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" -- will be on familiar terra firma (U.K. audiences will know this dynamic from as far back as 2002's "Cruise of the Gods"). In 'Shandy,' Coogan and Brydon play fictionalized versions of themselves; actor/comedians who share an odd-couple adversarial friendship complete with competitiveness, put-downs, jealousy, and spitefulness (though, as a recent Playlist interview with the duo will attest, that dynamic is somewhat rooted in truth) . And "The Trip" is essentially a continuation in exploring that relationship, minus the period-piece setting of their previous collaboration with Winterbottom.
So "The Trip" is like "My Dinner With Andre," only there's no adenoidal Wallace Shawn, no real philosophical conversations and instead it's a bickering Coogan and Brydon on a road-trip discussing the finer points of such deep topics as Bond villains or the subtleties of Michael Caine's voice. But that's hardly a criticism as they get some gut-busting mileage out of even the most minute of subject matter. It's also like food porn as Coogan is on an all-expenses paid business trip restaurant tour of Northern England to write a foodie article and Brydon tags along for the free and delicious ride. Essentially, the picture is broken up into driving, eating, talking and arguing to the point of driving each other nuts.
Also, there's impressions. Lots and lots of (awesome) impressions, making up for a lot of the film's excellent comedy. Brydon boasts that broadsheet journalists have described his impressions (people like Caine, Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino) as "stunningly accurate," and an annoyed Coogan tries to tell him that no man over 40 should be doing them. And of course, given the friendly though real rivalry at the core of their friendship, seconds later he's trying to one-up Brydon with his impressions of the famous actors, describing what's exactly off about his friend's mimicry. Their relationship is one of undermining each other at every turn, and yet a small glimmer of affection seems to bubble below the surface of all the belittling and disparagement. They also are a counterpoint -- Brydon is a family man with a modest home, while Coogan lives in a posh flat and dates what appears to be some kind of American supermodel while carrying on like a cad with any woman he meets.
But there's a deeper undercurrent to "The Trip," and the only reason Coogan embarks on a tour of the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales of Northern England with his "friend" Brydon is to impress his gourmand actress girlfriend Misha, who's now in the U.S. on a run of auditions with American filmmakers. Estranged and taking a break, it's really Misha who was supposed to be on this voyage with Steve, but since the arrogant, and self-centered comedian doesn't have many options -- and doesn't want to go alone -- he invites Brydon, a pal he's not particularly close with, but hell, he'll do.
Particularly effective are the scenes where Coogan escapes to make calls to Misha in the U.S. and their not-on-the-same-page disconnection seems to echo over the line in an unexpectedly heartbreaking manner. So between all the laughs and sarcastic quips at one another's expense in this silly, wonderful folly of a film, "The Trip" is a surprisingly moving portrait at loneliness. At least at times it is, and these scenes, particularly the melancholy ending, give the film a heft and weight most really wouldn't expect.
So, is "The Trip" a bunch of dinner conversation vignettes thrown together with a loose theme tossed around it? Possibly, but this rhythm, flow and Coogan's relationship reprieve sequences work far better than they ought to. "The Trip" is both paper thin narratively and yet, completely hilarious, and more to the point, very enjoyable. While there are lulls in the comedy, the pensive moments give the picture balance. Winterbottom's camera stays back, simply picking up the action. In many ways, the film is an exercise in the mundane and the droll comedians' take on such banalities. But ultimately, while "The Trip" is kind of a trifle and a minor work in the Winterbottom and Coogan/Brydon oeuvre, don't let that fool you. Hugely enjoyable and wickedly funny, this is one road trip you'll be glad you took. [B]