Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon revive their funny, odd and unbalanced “relationship” in “The Trip,” a largely improvised and often very funny road picture about two comic actors visiting the great roads and great restaurants of “The North” of England.
Michael Winterbottom’s somewhat overlong film, condensed from a six part-three hour BBC TV series whose excerpts became viral blockbusters, captures his two “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” stars at their annoying, competitive best and worst, playing versions of themselves for a mockumentary that makes no pretext of being a real documentary.
The Steve Coogan we see here is the one we’ve seen before — self-important but insecure, womanizing, saddled with successes that happened a decade ago, whining about a career that isn’t making much of a mark in Hollywood. Likewise, the Rob Brydon that Rob Brydon plays is not unfamiliar. He’s always “on,” fiddling with an impressive catalog of actor impersonations, memorizing poetry so that wherever he and Coogan stop along the way, he can recite some Coleridge or Wordsworth. Or a snippet of Pacino in “Heat” or old Woody Allen stand-up routine.
They’re both self-satisfied, but Coogan considerably more so. He considers himself a genius, and in one of their many debates, flatly tells the less-handsome but married, less successful but very popular in the UK Brydon “I’d rather be me than you.” The implication is that he’s had higher highs while Brydon has just plugged along with mid-level hit TV shows, plenty of game show and chat show appearances, polishing his “small man in a box” voice and various impersonations.
Brydon, meanwhile, sizes up Coogan just as brutally — “You’re desperate to be taken seriously, aren’t you?”
The hook here is that Coogan has signed up to do a magazine article on assorted great restaurants of “The North,” where he’s from. His girlfriend (Not his real girlfriend) is an actress who has flown back to the States, so Coogan drags Brydon along for company. They eat fabulous meals, which we see very serious chefs prepare in very serious kitchens — in The Yorke Inn, L’Enclume. And not being foodies, often as not, they make fun of the food. A bizarre drink earns a “consistency of snot” crack from Coogan. Duck fat lollipops? “Why not?”
Brydon seems to order scallops in every eatery they visit.
The meals are where their true competitiveness breaks out — wickedly funny dueling Michael Caine impressions, dueling Sean Connerys. Coogan, alas, only betters Brydon at doing ex-James Bond Roger Moore, something of an obsession for Coogan.
The Brydon the film presents (an actress plays his wife) is just shy of insufferable. He lurches from Anthony Hopkins to Ian McKellen, never confident enough to recite this poem or that one in his own voice. The only moment he hints at self-awareness is when they meet a hotel clerk who asks, “Are you his assistant?” A pained look, and “In a way, yes,” is his honest reply.
This Steve Coogan is soul-searching, trying to figure out why he hasn’t been able to grab the big brass ring and whether, at 44, he should still be trying to. He’s tried Hollywood, and failed. His nightmares have his pal Ben Stiller making this or that promise. Coogan has a teenage son. He can’t settle down, or stop bedding women along the way.
“Women are my windmills. I tilt at them.”
Still, the self-reflection seems more like something Winterbottom has imposed on the improvisation and doesn’t work nearly as well as the cranky dinner contests. But Coogan makes this performance an audition for more serious roles (He loses them all to Michael Sheen) and makes it pay off.
Their clashing personalities don’t create a laugh a minute. But the riffing, the one-upsmanship, the off-the-cuff zingers and the singing (ABBA, a great favorite of Coogan’s most famous creation, the dizzy talk show host Alan Partridge) make “The Trip” an easy-going trek down a road well-traveled by these two.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with profanity and some drug use.
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Credits: Directed by Michael Winterbottom, produced by Andrew Eaton and Melissa Parementer. An IFC Films release. Running time: 1:47.