Director Michael Winterbottom and actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have met before; they collaborated on the baffling yet enchanting Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, with the two actors playing both themselves and characters in the film-within-the-film. In The Trip, an improvised mockumentary/travelogue, they're only playing themselves--or, at least, an extension of the (presumably) comedically exaggerated personas that they played in the earlier film. The result is a giggly, entertaining treat, albeit one that overstays its welcome a touch.
The set-up is thus: Coogan has been hired to do a "restaurant tour of the North" and write it up for The Observer. He'd planned to go on the trip with his lovely young "foodie" girlfriend (Margo Stilley), but she's in the States after a falling out, so he asks his sort-of friend Brydon to come along. "I've asked other people," Coogan assures him, "but they're all too busy." So off they go, for a week of driving, eating, and shooting the shit.
It sounds lightweight, and it surely is. But it's a fast, witty movie, a kind of My Dinner with Andre with a bit more mobility. Coogan and Brydon's patter is snappy--it's the best kind of improvised dialogue--and their relationship, which seems composed of equal parts respect, exasperation, and jealousy, has enough complexity to sustain the thin narrative.
Coogan is not just on an assignment; he's dealing with crises of love, career, and aging ("Everything's exhausting at our age"). Brydon, a family man, chastises Coogan for chasing girls at his age; "I don't chase them," Coogan objects. "You make it sound like Benny Hill." Brydon knows he's travelling in the shadow of his more-famous friend; when a desk clerk asks if he's Coogan's assistant, Brydon takes a perfectly timed pause and muses, "In a way, yes."
Brydon's insecurities often lead to him falling back on his specialty of celebrity impressions, with perhaps a bit too much frequency (which becomes the point). But the pair share a comic camaraderie; perhaps the funniest scene finds the pair in an argument over how to properly do a Michael Caine impression, while their dueling Woody Allens and James Bonds are also comedic highlights. An extended riff on costume epics, with endless variations on the old "we rise at daybreak!" speech, is downright uproarious, and highlights their impeccable give-and-take. Of course, when there are women to impress, they immediately turn on each other, prodding and poking and making each other generally miserable.
Winterbottom and his cast occasionally puncture foodie culture ("It's a chocolate inverted comma. You've got an ironic desert"), but the travelogue element is actually quite enjoyable (don't see it on an empty stomach) while always remaining in the background, as part of the set-up. At 107 minutes, the picture is maybe, just maybe, a tad overlong; it was edited down from a six-episode televisions series, which would indicate that it could have been even longer, but it might actually play a bit better in smaller portions.
Occasionally, matters get a bit more serious, as Coogan tries desperately to reconnect with the woman who is slipping away; these phone calls are poignant enough without Winterbottom slathering on the sad piano music. The complexity and pathos of this "Steve Coogan" (however connected he might be to the actor that plays him) are properly established without overdoing it. Most telling is a scene late in the film, when Brydon posits a ridiculous hypothetical, asking if he'd allow his child to get sick if it meant winning a BAFTA--or, upping the stakes, an Oscar. "What kind of illness?" Coogan asks. The pair follow the logic of the transaction all the way through, and thankfully, in the end, Coogan gives the right answer. He sure does couch it in a lot of "probably"s, though.