Updated Thu, Sep 8, 2011 5:17 pm
In the 2005 film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Steve Coogan slyly plays himself as a bloke who can’t quite hide his self-interest, insecurity, lack of knowledge of what he’s talking about and general shabbiness of character.
In the same film, Rob Brydon plays himself as an earnest nice guy; vaguely childlike, who’s quite unable to dissemble a la Coogan. One of Tristram Shandy's chief pleasures is the spot-on timing and improvisatory feel of the banter between these two comedians.
Their new comedy The Trip, in which Coogan somewhat begrudingly invites Brydon along on a week-long tour of Northern England's restaurants (for a magazine article), is essentially an entire film comprised of that banter. The extent to which you enjoy the film will be the extent to which you find that banter funny. I love it, though I must say that, by the end the film, I began to share their annoyance with each other. That's probably the point.
Originally conceived as a BBC series, The Trip was edited to create a U.S. feature release. It reunites the pair with Tristram Shandy and 24 Hour Party People Director Michael Winterbottom. I expected it to be shot like a mockumentary, but it’s elegantly filmed, filling the frame with screen-high views of the pastures and meadows of Northern England.
As part of their magazine assignment, the pair eat a lot of succulent food, scallops and lamb in particular. However, neither is particularly a foodie (“tomato-y” and “soupy” is the verdict on a bowl of tomato soup). The restaurant scene in which Coogan one-ups Brydon’s Michael Caine impression is already an internet classic. After Brydon regales Coogan with a pretty damn good Caine, Coogan takes him to school, absolutely nailing one Caine mannerism after another until you see the difference between a good ear and an uncanny one.
While Brydon breaks into celebrity impressions at the smallest provocation (and, really, with no provocation at all), Coogan is a bit perplexed by Brydon's lack of embarrassment. Brydon, for his part, is quite incapable of embarrassment, because he's completely free of pretense. He is happy to be middlebrow, to make ordinary people laugh and to be an ordinary family man living an ordinary life (his claim to fame in England is apparently his “little man in a box” voice).
Coogan, meanwhile, holds forth on the subject of how he should be getting movie roles that are instead going to fellow British actor Michael Sheen. His treatise on Abba composer Bjorn Ulvaeus, singer Agnetha Faltskog and their song "The Winner Takes It All" is a little gem of sad hilarity.
The Trip is self-reflexive on many levels. Winterbottom is exactly the sort of art house auteur with whom Coogan at one point professes to only work. Meanwhile, his secret desire to be in mainstream Hollywood movies manifests itself in in a funny dream sequence in which Ben Stiller lists all the A-list Hollywood directors who are dying to work with him. The Trip is itself the kind of movie that he tells his agent he's tired of being in.
Unexpectedly, it becomes a movie about aging and human connection. The fact that Coogan is 44 years old and not where he wants to be in his career or his life is played for laughs, but there's a lot of pathos there as well.
Apart from Larry David, rarely has a comedian crafted a public persona so shabby and pathetic, or allowed himself to be the butt of the joke for as long as Coogan has. Brydon pities him and tries to draw him into the world of human contact, but Coogan must always withdraw. With The Trip, Steve Coogan adds another funny, sad and honest chapter to an ongoing portrait of an empty, world-weary man.
Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his film and music reviews at "The Moving World."