Deliciously funny: Duo eat, laugh their way through ‘The Trip’
What on earth is “The Trip,’’ besides hugely enjoyable? It’s not a documentary, since actors have been cast in minor roles and the two leads, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, are playing comic variations on their established personas of Spoiled Prat and Lovable Noodge. It’s not scripted — no writers are credited — but improv is rarely this sure-footed. It’s not really a movie, since it was edited down from a six-episode BBC series, but it’s not the original TV show either.
If anything, Michael Winterbottom’s latest film — his 25th in two decades, more or less — suggests a reality TV fusion of “Sideways’’ and a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road’’ movie, or maybe “My Dinner With Andre’’ repurposed into a movable feast. Both a gastronomic tour of northern England (that part seems real, at least) and a hilarious battle of showbiz egos, it takes particular delight in the sound of grown men bickering as fast and inventively as they can. Above all, “The Trip’’ knows the special hell of being stuck in a car with a friend for a week. Maybe it’s a prison movie.
The setup is this: Coogan, a well-known British TV personality and Hollywood demi-star (the masses remember him as Octavius in the “Night at the Museum’’ movies), has been signed up to pen a magazine article on the finer restaurants of the Lake District. His girlfriend (Margo Stilley) has backed out — the two are “on hiatus,’’ actually — and he asks old chum and frequent costar Brydon to come along instead.
If you saw these two in Winterbottom’s marvelous “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,’’ you know how well they work together, and so it is here. Brydon is (or plays) a family man with a loving wife and new baby at home. Coogan is (or plays) a divorced dad with a roving eye, happy to take advantage of his fame with a willowy hotel manager or freelance photographer. Brydon is unknown outside of England but cherished inside it; Coogan is admired but vaguely resented for his Hollywood airs. Brydon’s a mensch, Coogan’s a bit of a — well, the word one character uses is extremely unprintable, if more in use in England than here.
One other thing: Both men like to eat, so “The Trip’’ regularly pauses at the tables of upscale restaurants like L’Enclume, Hipping Hall, and the Yorke Arms while waiters trot out scallops, pigeon, rabbit, and lamb — and that’s just one meal. The dishes can get baroque — duck-fat lollipops, anyone? — and our heroes aren’t exactly practiced critics. “The consistency is a bit like snot but it tastes great,’’ is how Coogan sums up a mysterious green broth.
One other other thing: Both Brydon and Coogan do impressions. Rather, they do competitive impressions, the way some men try to kill each other on the squash court. “The Trip’’ finds its lunatic groove on the very first evening, as the two squabble over the proper approach to Michael Caine. Do you do the young Caine or the old Caine (the difference is two octaves)? Can you do the break in the actor’s voice when he gets emotional? This is more than a matter of professional pride; all the resentment and companionship each man feels for the other is in those warring Cockney diphthongs.
The duel continues across the countryside, and no one is spared: not Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellan, Richard Burton, Hugh Grant, Sean Connery, Al Pacino, nor even Woody Allen. Thankfully, “The Trip’’ breaks into the occasional blissful freestyle, as when Coogan and Brydon improvise a “Braveheart’’-style period epic while driving across the moors (“To bed! For tomorrow we rise at 8:30ish!’’) or burrow into the meaning and majesty of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All.’’
For all the inspired silliness, “The Trip’’ nimbly balances joy and melancholy: The pleasures of Britain’s back roads, of communing with the shades of Coleridge and Wordsworth, as well as the bitterness of the aging actor’s life. Coogan’s neuroses surface repeatedly, both in comic form (why does Michael Sheen get all the good roles?) and with unexpectedly touching self-pity. To travel through ancient England in the 21st century is to be both in constant touch with the wired world and to be isolated from those who matter: one’s children, wives, lovers.
It’s a tricky juggling act, and while the original TV series (as yet commercially unavailable here) developed it at leisure, the theatrical version of “The Trip’’ is no less delirious or profound. “Would you go to my funeral?’’ asks Brydon in a moment of owlish introspection. “Of course I would,’’ says Coogan. “If only to pad out the numbers.’’