Steve Coogan is one of England's unsung exports, at least in the U.S. A major TV star in Great Britain who has been in films such as Tropic Thunder, The Wrong Guys and the upcoming Our Idiot Brother, he hasn't broken through in the U.S. in the same way that, say, Ricky Gervais has starting from similar roots.
The Trip is a condensed version of a British TV series he did with his comedian pal Rob Brydon and director Michael Winterbottom. A kind of meta-food series, it's been turned into a meta-food movie, starring Coogan and Brydon as versions of themselves.
Coogan calls Brydon to ask if he'd like to accompany Coogan on a driving tour of Michelin-starred restaurants in northern England, for an article Coogan has been assigned by a newspaper. Coogan's girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley), was supposed to accompany him, but she's gone back to the U.S. in search of work (as a journalist). Since Coogan apparently would rather die than wander the countryside by himself (without, one assumes, his own personal audience), he invites Brydon along to eat, chat and otherwise goof on the locals.
But the idea of Brydon as an audience is immediately quashed because, well, aside from knowing Coogan a long time, Brydon is himself a comic - and an impressionist. So he is not only able but more than willing to top Coogan's jokes, to tell him when his material is shite and to, otherwise, be his competitor, rather than his cheerleader.
Which is what makes The Trip such a hoot. Apparently improvised as they toured the countryside, "The Trip" features the pair of British funnymen trying to one-up each other, whether it's in dissecting both the lyrics and Swedish-inflected English of ABBA's The Winner Takes It All, topping each other with impressions of various James Bonds or offering dueling versions of their Michael Caine impressions.
Brydon's Caine is actually the more substantial one, starting with his high-pitched Cockney voice of the 1960s and following it down the vocal register to his deeper, more rumbly sound of the 21st century.
In between, we're treated to Coogan's phone conversations with his American and British agents, who chuckle at his insecurity and offer him fatuous advice and ridiculous job possibilities -- except for what sounds like a serious offer to star in a crime show on an American TV network. Hey, it worked for Hugh Laurie.
Meanwhile Coogan is on the phone to the distant Mischa, offering scant support for her job prospects and reacting with jealousy when she tells him about positive developments. But he also casually puts the moves on every woman who crosses his path -- usually successfully.
Yet he can't quite shake his sense of envy of Brydon, who has a wife and child at home and who seems perfectly happy with where his career is. Coogan is unhappy because he's not a bigger star than he is in the U.S. and ambivalent about being recognized in the U.K. He is, in other words, a grass-is-always-greener kind of guy.
The pleasures of The Trip are subtle and absurd. No big comic set-pieces or slapstick gags, no set-up/punchline construction. The humor is found in the moment by a pair of witty performers who cast a gimlet eye on everything they encounter -- including each other. As the old saying goes, The Trip is about the journey, not the destination.
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