Anglophiles rejoice: the broody foodie comedy The Trip reunites the delectable pair of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, real-life actor-comic friends who play versions of themselves to highly amusing and oddly wistful effect. Director Michael Winterbottom has trimmed down his 2010 BBC-produced Britcom to feature length, which admittedly makes the film version of The Trip a compromise from the start. Most won’t notice the missing hour: though the film is unapologetically insular and can be awkwardly episodic (since it was, in fact, six episodes), its specificity and shagginess contribute to its off-kilter appeal.
The Trip operates on a simple premise, a nearly blank slate to be filled by the stars: contracted by The Observer to review upscale eateries in England’s Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, Steve (Coogan) despairs when his girlfriend begs off. But he rings up Rob (Brydon), parsimoniously proposing a 60-40 split of the job’s pay in compensation for Rob’s time, observations, and company. It’s the first salvo in a series of tongue-in-cheek (or are they confessional?) attacks on Coogan’s ego, which would be all-consuming were it not for his self-doubting neuroses.
Brydon likewise submits himself to amusing self-satire; he’s paints himself as a pathologically needy entertainer who can’t or won’t turn off his performance instincts even long enough to get through a meal. That’s good news for the audience, as it gives Brydon license to let loose with his many celebrity impressions. The film’s most brazenly entertaining scene is a “Michael Caine-off,” with Brydon and Coogan hilariously arguing over the precise intonations for a pitch-perfect impression of the star (stick around for dueling James Bonds).
The show mostly relies upon the tit-for-tat, friendly but wary one-upmanship between Steve and Rob, and the actors don’t disappoint. As comics, they have an understanding that everything’s fair game, and a mutual willingness and talent for riffing, whether it’s a consideration of the oddities of martial wake-up calls ("Gentlemen, to bed, for we ride at dawn! Or nine-thirty-ish") or a deconstruction of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All.”
Winterbottom makes time for glimpses into the Steve’s private dark places, as his relationship unravels and his career continues to stagnate. And between the many hoity-toity meals to be simultaneously enjoyed and mocked, Steve and Rob make ticklishly reflective tourist stops to the old stomping grounds of Coleridge (Greta Hall) and Wordsworth (Dove Cottage).
But the best moments simply let Steve and Rob go at each other, playfully or scabrously (usually both). Steve’s best defense is a good offense, proven in a brilliantly funny-sad cemetery visit that finds him prematurely—and a bit eagerly—eulogizing his friend with a practiced passive aggression. As Woody Allen’s output long ago proved, anhedonia is fertile ground for comedy, and The Trip covers as much of that ground as possible in its six-day journey of celebrity insecurity.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]