On the road... with an appetite
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 17, 2011
Have you ever been trapped in the back seat of a car while the old married couple up front bickers and banters for hours? It’s either sheer torture or, if the couple happens to be Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, wildly entertaining.
In “The Trip,” Michael Winterbottom’s prickly, poignant picaresque, Coogan and Brydon gleefully resurrect the fictional versions of themselves they created in Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” in which their actorly egos, competitive instincts and penchant for comic riffs vied delightfully for center stage. Here, the backdrop for their petty rivalries, inadvertent heart-to-hearts and flat-out hilarious fits of improvisatory free association is an epicurean tour of the literary sites, comfy inns and high-end gastro-pubs of England’s Lake District and Yorkshire Dales.
On assignment for the Observer newspaper to write about the epicurean adventure, Coogan — on hiatus with his latest girlfriend and having called everyone else he can think of — rings up Brydon to accompany him. For the next six days the men joke, argue and one-up their way through the northern England’s spectacularly misty scenery and even more awe-inspiring meals, savoring perfectly prepared scallops while they perfect their Michael Caine impressions, say, or reflecting on the “wild and windy moor,” only to end up invoking Christy Moore and, finally, Roger Moore — which inevitably leads to a contest in who can deliver the best James Bond monologue.
Running through their ruminations is the constant competition that defines Coogan and Brydon’s perversely funny dynamic: Coogan, the more famous of the two, harbors higher ambitions but his career has stalled, whereas Brydon — who has a wife and baby at home — happily exists in the midrange of celebrity that makes him a star with fans of the Radio 4 quiz shows that Coogan dismisses as beneath him. (Brydon’s most well-known shtick is a vocal routine called “small man in a box”; when Brydon tells him it’s now an iPhone app, Coogan looks as though he wants to eat his own liver.)
Meanwhile, Coogan nervously calls his girlfriend, considers doing an HBO pilot; flirts with concierges; endures spotty cell reception during tense calls to his ex-wife and son; and waxes pedantic on the geological formations of the gorgeous country they’re traipsing through, finally receiving a dose of his own medicine in one of the film’s funniest set pieces.
Taking a page from Christopher Guest at his most deadpan, Winterbottom has clearly perfected the intimate mock-documentary form, larding Coogan and Brydon’s picaresque with cameo encounters that come off with flawless, unwinking spontaneity. When “The Trip” is at its best, Winterbottom simply gives his two gifted actors their heads, whether in one of their Caine-offs, improvising an inspirational monologue in a costume drama (“Gentlemen, to bed. . .”) or, in Brydon’s case, delivering a stammeringly spot-on impression of Hugh Grant as he tries to coax his wife into a bit of phone sex.
While the passive-aggressive digs and poisonous zingers fly like so many toxic-tipped arrows, cinematographer Ben Smithard steals occasional visits to the kitchens of such destination eateries as the Inn at Whitewell and L’Enclume, lending “The Trip” delicious added value as meticulously composed, mouth-watering food porn. And, after an initial, counter-intuitive blast of Joy Division on Coogan’s car CD player, the men’s journey is accompanied by Michael Nyman’s pensive piano score, which nicely captures the wistful truth midlife angst that lies coiled behind every joke. “The Trip” is a laugh, sure, but what makes it worth itself is the sweet and aching heart at its center.
Contains brief profanity and sexual situations.