The simpler the recipe the more crucial the ingredients. Take two actor/comedians of British stock, each with a gift for improvisation - Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon to be specific. Pack the pair off for a week on a restaurant tour, asking them to play heightened versions of themselves. To add a little substance to the journey and ensure some discipline in the mix, fold in the direction of Michael Winterbottom, perhaps the most versatile talent in the biz. Now whisk vigorously and voilà, The Trip is ready to serve. Much more than an appetizer, if not quite a main course, it definitely goes down a treat.
The early frames briskly set up both the premise and the contrasts. Commissioned by a London broadsheet to review six upscale eateries in the north of England, Coogan, who's divorced with a couple of kids, had planned to bring along his latest girlfriend, but she blew him off at the last minute. Brydon, happily married with a new baby, agrees to fill in. Yes, the two have worked together before, including on a couple of Winterbottom films ( 24 Hour Party People and A Cock and Bull Story). Here, as more or less themselves, they're middle-aged guys sharing the same vocation but with personalities as different as their marital status. Ambitious and brooding, Coogan has the darker nature; lighthearted and affable, Brydon is all sunny-side up.
Happily, both possess a devilishly quick wit and the need to go beyond self-impersonation to the more celebrated variety. With Brydon in particular, that need borders on obsession. Almost immediately, he's doing his spot-on impressions of the English-speaking icons in the cinematic canon - Burton, Hopkins, De Niro, Pacino, Hoffman. Coogan listens, wavering (like us) between amusement and growing annoyance that this vocal chameleon just won't shut up. Sometimes, though, his competitive juices flow and it's game on. Their duelling Michael Caines, duelling Sean Connerys, duelling Woody Allens are all wonderful but so is the slightly rancorous octane that fuels the competition. In that sense, at least on intriguing occasions, this also seems like a business trip - actors acting like actors and trying to out-perform each other.
The film's more scripted elements see Coogan cast essentially in the straight-man's role, angsting about his career and love life and scattered family. As they enter the Lake District, so rich in poetic heritage, Brydon stays in merry form, regaling us with a little Kubla Khan in Burton's stentorian tones, and a bit of Tintern Abbey in Hopkins's mellower strains. But it's Coogan who wanders lonely as a cloud, usually in search of cellphone reception, seeking news from his American agent or his departed girlfriend or, in a touching moment, from his young son.
Not that he's unwilling to seize the day and enjoy its pleasures - like the delightful scallops wrapped in bacon or the delicious hostess wrapped in his arms. However, when the sun rises the next morning, she's quick to leave his bed with a cheery "Bye" and, as that priceless look on his mug attests, Coogan is left to wonder who conquered whom. Back on the culinary front, at the linen-clad table of the next posh inn, another look tells a more familiar story: It's the gaze of patiently feigned interest you plaster on your face as the waiter plows through his rehearsed description of every asparagus-in-goat's-butter item on the plate.
Winterbottom garnishes the proceedings with a few lovely, Turneresque shots of the mist rising over the waters, while our starring duo continue to eat and jibe and banter their way towards the finish line. There, after a polite adieu, one returns to the warm embrace of his wife and the other to the clinical view of London from his chrome-and-glass condo. Whether any of this bears any relation to their actual lives is, to the interested, a matter for debate and, to the rest of us, a moot point that pales before the more important fact.
Which is: The Trip is good fun, complete with laugh-out-loud moments, pleasant scenery, fine food, finer poetry and company that only rarely feels tedious. What's more, anyone looking for depth can find a little in the question that hovers delicately over the entire excursion: Is it possible to step out of character when we're playing ourselves?
- Directed by Michael Winterbottom
- Starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon
- Classification: 14A