Read an "Interrogation" with Steve Coogan.
Michael Winterbottom's The Trip (IFC Films), a peripatetic comedy about two comedians on a jaunt around the north of England, alternately amuses, bores, and annoys, just like its two hilariously intolerable protagonists. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, both fortysomething British comics with a long list of TV series and films to their credit, play semi-fictionalized versions of themselves. Coogan, known for his hugely successful BBC sitcom I'm Alan Partridge, is a career-obsessed serial womanizer who frets that he'll never be taken seriously as an actor. Brydon, a married man with a new baby, is less visibly consumed by insecurity, but his compulsion to do vocal impressions at every moment of the day borders on the pathological (a symptom Coogan is ever keen to point out).
On a vaguely defined assignment for a newspaper, Coogan has been sent to the picturesque Lake District to review six high-end restaurants. When his girlfriend backs out at the last minute, Coogan invites Brydon instead, making it clear that he tried and failed to get several other friends to come along first. And so the two men, who inhabit a limbo somewhere between friends, colleagues, and rivals, set out in Coogan's Range Rover to explore the land of Romantic poets and the Brontë sisters. By day, Coogan, an aspiring outdoorsman—as he enjoys mentioning to attractive hotel employees, he's brought along some crampons—drags Brydon on ill-planned hikes or visits to literary sites like Bolton Abbey, where Brydon declaims Wordsworth's poem of the same name in the stentorian tones of Ian McKellen. By night, they alight at various swank country inns, where they dine on elaborate but singularly unappetizing-looking dishes, such as a greenish vegetable cocktail whose taste Brydon praises even as he compares its consistency to snot.
During the dull stretches of The Trip, which are not infrequent, I passed the time musing about what Winterbottom was doing making a movie like this. This shape-shifting director seems to make a film nearly every year, from playful literary adaptations like the delightful Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (which also starred Coogan and Brydon) to dramas inspired by contemporary global events (In This World, A Mighty Heart) to period noir thrillers (The Killer Inside Me). For my taste, Winterbottom is a bit too prolific. His 9 Songs, a freewheeling, sexually explicit account of a couple's affair over the course of a year, felt like a fitfully inspired sketch rather than a finished movie, and the same could be said of The Trip, which floats ideas for character arcs (Coogan's compulsion to seduce women, Brydon's inability to speak in his own voice) that never get developed.
But during the film's funny stretches, as when Brydon and Coogan get into a loud public row about who does the better Michael Caine, I was laughing too hard to care about unexplored character arcs. (Brydon's demonstration of the way Caine's voice has retreated into the back of his throat as he ages is a particularly stunning feat of vocal mimicry.) These are two naturally hilarious men, and when they get rolling—especially when they're literally rolling, trapped in the confines of Coogan's car—they can spin comic gold out of nothing at all: a few lines of Coleridge read from a guidebook, an imagined scene from a Braveheart-style costume drama: "Gentlemen, to bed, for we ride at dawn! … Or nine-thirty-ish."
The Trip was originally conceived as a series for British television, a context in which its rambling episodic structure—another day, another country inn—makes more sense. If the notion of being trapped in a car for two hours with two brilliant, self-centered comedians sounds like a bit much, The Trip is also available on IFC on demand. There you can enjoy Brydon and Coogan's improvisations the way they sip that dubiously textured vegetable cocktail, just a little at a time.