Rob Brydon, left, gets a taste of what Steve Coogan ordered in "The… (Phil Fisk / IFC Films )
Road trips by their very nature tend to be part plan, part improvisation, part fun, part irritation. And so it is with "The Trip," starring British comic actor Steve Coogan and his frequent pranking partner, Rob Brydon.
They're doing another riff on the "characters" Steve and Rob, who were responsible for most of the tongue-in-cheekiness of "Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story." This latest bit of silliness reunites them with filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, who seems to have endless patience with their antics, having worked with them on 2005's "Tristram" and 2002's "24 Hour Party People." "The Trip" began as a six-episode faux documentary series on British TV in the fall of last year. Now, it's been nipped and tucked to about half of its original size and released here as a film, which might sound improbable but surprisingly it works (no doubt helped by the labors of editors Mags Arnold and Paul Monaghan). As this is near total improvisation, there is no writing credit, and that holds up remarkably well too.
According to a premise that gets played around with as much as everything else, Steve has been dispatched to England's rural byways as a food critic. He's to weigh in on the gourmet offerings at a series of posh boutique hotels for the Observer (prepare to be craving exquisitely plated scallops by the end). He had intended to make the trip with his foodie girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley), but they're going through a rough patch.
After running through a list of possible replacements, he ends up with Rob as a traveling companion. So Steve's disgruntled before they even get on the road, and Rob's kissy goodbyes to wife and baby do not improve the mood. It's a clash of sweet and sour from the start.
As it was in "Tristram Shandy," the worm turns on the competing egos of actors and the extraordinary manifestations that can take. Steve wants to ensure he's got the better room at each of their six stops — sometimes size matters, in other cases it's the view, and still others it's which is the favorite of the pretty concierge who might later occupy his bed. He also wants the better dish at the restaurants, with Rob forever winning that one hands down — always ordering the scallops, which manage to look impossibly delicious and differently dressed with inventive flourishes of sauces and sprigs of this or that.
Not surprisingly, the car is one of the main battlegrounds, starting with which routes to take. There will be a lot of amusing irritants, like the competing Michael Caine impersonations — as in who can do his voice better? What's the difference between early Caine and current Caine? And when they tire of that, though they rarely do, there's Woody Allen, Liam Neeson, Sean Connery and endless others to mimic.
There are, of course, more mundane issues to contend with. Steve's constant search for cellphone service has him standing in fields, at the edge of cliffs, climbing hilltops. "Can you hear me now?" punctuates his ex-wife's frustrations, his U.S. agent's deal-making, his rocky relationship with Mischa — dropped connections in both the literal and metaphoric sense plague him.
Perhaps it's the years of collaboration between director Winterbottom and the two actors that makes it all feel so effortless and of the moment. That is certainly how director of photography Ben Smithard captures it, his lens in their faces when confined to the car or an over-crowded hotel room, then taking things from a great distance after they're outside — with Steve as often as not in silhouette in his cell-signal search.
Between philosophical musings about the food they are sampling and the nature of life in general, the actors make hay, poking fun at each other's egocentric soft spots. Coogan and Brydon are either quite brilliant at this or just serving up slight variations of their very witty selves. Either way, their travels and squabbles are great fun to watch, the countryside is bucolic, the food mouthwatering. You just wouldn't want to go on a real road trip with them.