Slight but funny and at times almost painfully real, the latest from risk-taking director Michael Winterbottom is a reedited version of a British television series starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (previously paired in his “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” from 2006) as versions of themselves, travelling through the north of England to sample the fare at various restaurants so Coogan can report on it for a London newspaper. It’s as much a talkfest as “My Dinner With Andre,” but by taking full advantage of the stars’ talent for improvisation and impressions it’s frequently hilarious and on occasion more than a little touching, even sad.
The picture plays off the differences between the two men. Coogan is an arrogant, cynical but terribly insecure fellow (especially about his career trajectory), who invites Brydon on the trip only because his girlfriend has gone off to America and he couldn’t find anybody else willing to accompany him. He’s constantly phoning the absent gf, but also takes advantage of any attractive woman who falls into his orbit, and his relationship with his teenaged son—whom he also calls at one point—seems at best strained. Brydon, by contrast, is a happily married man who seems content with his career and his home life.
But both of them are definitely competitive. Though the object of their jaunt is supposed to be the menus they sample at the restaurants on their itinerary (and the dishes, in fact, look amazing), what they seem most interested in is one-upsmanship. They exchange barbs, aiming constantly to outdo one another, and match impressions, most notably their versions of Michael Caine. And Coogan, concerned that plum prospects are becoming increasingly rare as he gets older, is clearly riled by Brydon’s success with one of his unusual voice characters, “small man in a box,” which he tries but fails to duplicate. Even when they visit tourist attractions along the way, the sights are secondary to their comments about them.
“The Trip” is clearly a lark, an extended routine in which Coogan and Brydon show off by playing against one another. How much of it actually reflects the sorts of people they really are and how much is entirely made up or exaggerated (and to what extent) are questions that only add to the fascination. There are bits that don’t entirely come off, and a repetitive feel does sometimes set in. But as “Tristram Shandy” showed, the two make a fine comic pair, and their bickering pays dividends. Unlike American buddy-road movies, which depend on the coarsest of gags and sheer raunchiness, this one relies on wit and cleverness. And that’s certainly a welcome change.