When Steve Coogan is commissioned by The Observer to review half a dozen restaurants, he decides to plan a trip around the North of England with his food loving American girlfriend. But when she decides to leave him and return to the US, Steve is faced with a week of meals for one. Reluctantly, he calls Rob Brydon, the only person left he can think of who will be available on short notice. Rob, never one to turn down a free meal agrees, and together they set off for a culinary adventure.
In Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, a droll and expertly played comedy of slightly bad manners, the gloss of sincerity and blade of minor malice sit close together; 'I appreciate it, even if it was meant to intimidate me," is a defining line, as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, a pair of actors whose friendship can’t quite get past being colleagues and rivals. The film finds humour in their barbed exchanges and improvised insults, as they take in a gastronomic tour of England’s north that becomes a marker point in their fictionalised lives.
The prolific Winterbottom, on his game here after The Killer Inside Me, first captured the banter between Coogan and Brydon in a scene from 2006’s film-within-a-film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and he makes fine use of it here in a movie that’s been cut down from six half hour television episodes that screened in Britain in November of last year; the peculiar circumstances of turning a British series into an international film is exactly the kind of minor subject the two protagonists would debate while driving to their next destination.
The amusement comes from hearing how discussion gives way to division, with each man trying to make his case without appearing to care. 'To some extent, you’re correct," says Coogan, and the qualifications make for sly laughs. Five years ago, Coogan was plainly ascendant, but a delicious element here is that Brydon has grown in popularity in the U.K. thanks to his television work. When an elderly museum clerk recognises Brydon, but not Coogan, and does them a favour the latter is aghast at the implication.
The set-up has Coogan visiting high-end restaurants on a newspaper assignment, with Brydon a last minute replacement for wary American girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley). Winterbottom will cut from the kitchen’s exacting preparation, to the dish arriving at the table where the comics can only see the potential for humour and not the dedication. 'I wouldn’t say they’re resting," Brydon observes of a plate of scallops, and the rush to get a laugh – to one up each other – is symptomatic of the performer’s narcissism that the picture firmly skewers.
There’s a melancholic intent, somewhat harshly shoehorned into the edited feature, of Coogan contemplating his professional and personal worth ('I’ve been 41 for three years," he sighs at one point) as he dreams about Ben Stiller, considers an American job offer and tries to counsel his wayward son. Part of Coogan’s desperation to stay ahead of Brydon, whether it’s in Michael Caine impressions or rock climbing, stems from his insecurity – he calls Mischa and jealously enquires of her meetings, then beds the next available woman who crosses his path.
Everyone is trying to slip something in to The Trip, and for Winterbottom that means a commentary on the nature of actors that allows for both the lacerating and the affectionate. It flows so smoothly because the two leads have a chemistry that allows for sustained interplay; visiting a medieval abbey and discussing death somehow turns into Coogan delivering a mock eulogy for Brydon that laces the memories with tart putdowns. If the narrative is just a touch out of puff by the end, it’s worth it for such subtly hilarious scenes along the way. With The Trip it really is the journey that matters, not the destination.