The incredible thing about "The Trip," Michael Winterbottom's road trip comedy featuring the comedic stylings of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, is that it gets away with a lot by doing very little. Reprising the semi-fictionalized versions of themselves they played in Winterbottom's 2006 "Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story," Coogan and Brydon endlessly reveal their finest impressions, trade barbs and yammer on about the highs and lows of show business. The entire movie rests on the comic potential of their chemistry and whether they can use it for the greater purpose of investigating Coogan's sense of personal and professional alienation. But they're clearly game for the task at hand.
"The Trip" unfolds in a clean, episodic fashion, mainly because it originally took the form of a six-episode mini-series that aired on BBC Two. Strung together into a feature running just under two hours, the single package experience borrows equally from "My Dinner with André" and cooking reality shows. There's barely the hint of a plot: Hired by The Observer to travel the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales and review the upscale eateries he encounters along the way, Coogan drafts Brydon to accompany him when his girlfriend abruptly cancels.
That's the entire set-up for an experience dominated by two-shots of Coogan and Brydon engaged in witticisms over a series of lusciously photographed meals. At their first stop, they start trying out their impressions, and they never really stop. A joint attempt to impersonate Michael Caine in "Get Carter" ("she was only sixteen years old") turns into a sort of litmus test for whether they still have the skills that made them famous in the first place. It's an open-ended question.
The central appeal of "The Trip" is that it's only a comedy in bits and pieces. Overall, however, Winterbottom constructs a thoughtful and generally sad portrait of Coogan's persona as a man unsure of his next move. His agent pressures him to do American films that Coogan considers below his standards. He cheats on his girlfriend as if to prove to himself that he still knows how to impress an audience. Dedicated to maintaining his masculine composure around Brydon, Coogan's playful sparring always masks a deeper feeling of discontent. When prodded enough, however, he becomes his own worst critic: Told that he needs to keep his career momentum in motion, he replies, "You get momentum when you're going downhill."
Shot with a shaky-cam style and heavily reliant on improvisation, "The Trip" maintains an agreeable rhythm despite its many redundancies. The food looks scrumptious and the two leads have plenty of onscreen charisma to spare. Nevertheless, its heavier ideas come with time. Winterbottom keeps the tone light, allowing naturalism to lead the way, but the duo's conversations contain increasingly serious implications. Coogan's fear of death and regrets over the distance he has from his family constantly dominate his thoughts.
In one of the more revealing scenes, Coogan gets trapped in the middle of a river when he loses his balance on a group of stepping stones. Brydon, watching from afar, doesn't hesitate: "You're stuck halfway to your destination," he says. "You're stuck in a metaphor." The reality is that everything in "The Trip" offers itself up as a metaphor, including the title, which reflects the soul-searching nature of Coogan's mindset. More than that, those ubiquitous impressions take on a symbolic dimension as well, becoming a literal manifestation of the identity crisis plaguing Coogan in virtually every scene.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Since the series already came out overseas, "The Trip" is destined to perform well on VOD, although Coogan's relatively small star status in the U.S. means the movie probably won't do huge business in limited theatrical release.
criticWIRE grade: B+