originally posted on Row Three

With no other knowledge about the film, the title “The Trip” might, to unsuspecting American ears, conjure up images of Road Trip and frat boy humor, possibly even the thought that Todd Phillips has snuck in a second movie this year to compete with his own The Hangover II, but one need only note that this one is directed by Michael Winterbottom and stars two of Britain’s best comedic actors (not nearly well enough known, sadly, in the US), and it’s immediately obvious we’re in for a different sort of experience here. And yeah, that’s a very good thing.

After working with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on his brilliant adaptation of Tristram Shandy, Winterbottom brings them together again for a largely improvised comic journey through rural England, the two actors playing versions of themselves with so much real-life detail brought in that it’s difficult to tell where the line between fiction and reality lies. After his girlfriend returns to America for a job rather than join him on a restaurant tour of England (he’s writing an article or doing publicity or something in between acting jobs), Coogan cajoles Brydon into going with him, despite the fact that neither of them are particularly keen on the idea.

The trip takes a week, and the film divides up into days, each day basically having Coogan and Brydon drive cross-country to a new inn, sample lunch, maybe take in a sight or handle some publicity business, and head to bed, ready to do it all again the next day, all the while carrying on an ongoing conversation full of comedy bits or impressions. The trailer is basically an excerpt of the pair arguing over their Michael Caine impressions, and that plays a recurring part in the film (a too-often recurring, some will think), but there are plenty of other bits that play out, too, and the pair are so unassuming that you easily believe they just do this style of banter naturally in real life.

But it’s not all fun and games, as Coogan is undergoing somewhat of a crisis, both in his personal life and in his career – his girlfriend is successfully pursuing her own career in the United States, not missing him nearly as much as he misses her, while his attempts to break into mainstream feature films are failing and he’s not getting any younger. Calls with his agent and with his girlfriend punctuate the film, interspersed with Coogan’s existential wandering around the landscape, filling any void of conversation with encyclopedic facts – a tactic that gets turned around on him in a particularly awkward/hilarious scene later in the film). Meanwhile, though Brydon is arguably less well-known even than Coogan (it’s always Coogan that gets recognized during the course of the film, usually by people who immediately imitate his Alan Partridge character from British TV), he is much better adjusted, a fact that becomes increasingly clear as the pair’s bantering takes on an edge of subtle oneupsmanship and competition.

The way the improvised comedy interacts with the more scripted existential crisis parts of the film works much better than you might expect, lending a depth to the comedy and a humor to the drama that make the film pretty strong as a whole. However, it’s tough to get away from the fact that it’s basically these two guys talking for the whole film, and some of the bits do frankly get a little old by the end. If you don’t like their style of comedy, you won’t last ten minutes. Even if you do, as I do, you may find it wearing a little thin by the time “Friday” or so rolls around and you realize you’ve got till “Sunday.” Yet Coogan and Brydon nail every bit, and the bittersweetness that shines through more and more is great as well. The trio already did the basic concept as a 6-episode series in England; while I’m content with the hour-and-forty-five-minute version we get here, it’s entirely possible that it would work even better in half-hour chunks. In any case, Winterbottom allows Coogan and Brydon’s specific brands of comedy and acting shine, and if you fancy a bit of a hangout with these guys, it is definitely that.

Director: Michael Winterbottom
Producers: Andrew Eaton, Melissa Parmenter
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Margo Stilley
Running Time: 107 minutes