In the long history of man’s need to battle with and dominate his fellow men, is there any competition so intense as two funny guys trying to impress each other? Beyond arm wrestling, beyond sumo wrestling, comic oneupsmanship demands killer instinct as much as ready wit. The can-you-top-this? exchanges spark pleasure and challenge in the jesting jousters, until one combatant may signal defeat with a gentlemanly “Well done, sir,” or by slinking into silence or out of the room.
In Michael Winterbottom’s semi-improv, semi-real comedy The Trip, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play out this atavistic animosity through the dead-serious game of celebrity impressions. As Brydon, a voice actor and host of the BBC TV comedy quiz show Would I Lie to You?, launches into a medley of Welsh-actor imitations, Coogan, the English TV star who has also appeared as a supporting actor in Ben Stiller movies (Night at the Museum, Tropic Thunder), sourly observes that “Anyone over 14 who amuse themselves by doing impressions needs to take a long hard look in the mirror.” Yet the two are instantly doing dueling Michael Caines: Coogan emphasizing Caine’s nasality, Brydon the lower, slower diction that comes from decades of “all the cigars and brandy.” Round one to Rob.
They are having lunch at a posh Midlands restaurant — the film’s slim premise is that Coogan has been assigned by The Observer to spend a week sampling upscale eateries up North — and the almost-star is not in the best mood. His girlfriend, whom he’d planned to take on the trip, has abruptly left for the States; Brydon is her last-minute replacement. Coogan is also agitated about his stalled movie career. On the phone, his agent assures him, “You’ve got a huge amount of momentum,” and Coogan mopes, “Yeah, you get momentum when you go downhill.” The Hollywood break he hoped for might come when he played the director in Tropic Thunder, except that the character was blown up 10 minutes into the movie. (Here, Stiller has a cameo guest shot in one of Coogan’s dark dreams.) We see that the easy-going, happily married Brydon is performing his vocal capers at least in part to perk up his glummish pal — an attempt that depresses Coogan even further.
Coogan made his name playing a TV personality named Alan Partridge, first on the Radio 4 news parody On the Hour and its TV spinoff The Day Today, then on his own fake chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge. Oily, bluff, bullying, insecure, misogynistic and, as he described himself, “homoskeptic,” Partridge was a living satire of small-screen smugness and desperation. Brydon has his own unreality comedy series, Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive, playing an exaggerated version of himself as a quiz-show host. The two actors also played variations on their public personas in Winterbottom’s 2005 film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which devolved into a backstage farce that put embarrassing elements of Coogan’s own tabloid life to cuttingly comic use.
The question about The Trip, especially for Americans ignorant of the stars’ TV work, is how much of their self-named characters is true and how much fake? I’d say the movie is faux-fake, a fiction sprung from reality — for, whatever or whoever Coogan may be, he creates a character making jokes on the brink of despair, ever on prowling for sexual conquests to slake his loneliness, and looking at Brydon with a seething blankness that looks as if he’s straining to both stifle his rage and stay awake. The British Academy must have thought so too: Coogan won this year’s BAFTA award for Best Male TV Comedy Performance. They realized he was brilliantly playing a sad, frustrated guy named Steve Coogan.
The project was conceived as a six-part BBC series, which aired last fall. For the theatrical version, Winterbottom has edited the show’s just-under-three hours down to just under two hours. Both the show and the film offer nothing much more than two men talking — in the car, at the restaurant-inns or while visiting local landmarks. That’s easy to take as a half-hour interlude seen weekly, and a treat to watch in snippets on YouTube (where many of the impression bits can be found). It may run the risk of wearying its viewers when they consume it in one gulp. But I think Winterbottom wants the audience to share a bit of Coogan’s restlessness and exasperation at Brydon’s nonstop mimicry, and his envy at his friend’s ability to enthrall two young women with his impressions. “You can’t treat your entire life like a Radio 4 panel show,” Coogan warns Brydon, who immediately sounds a “Bzzt!” — the noise of a game-show buzzer indicating a wrong answer — and says, “Yes, you can,” with a triumphant smile.
And yes, the film lets him. Brydon reads a Times restaurant review in the voice of Anthony Hopkins; declaims Wordsworth’s “Bolton Abbey” in the reedy timbre of Ian McKellen; does Woody Allen as he might sound if channeled through the voice of the late English comedian Les Dawson. He summons up Tom Jones, Hugh Grant, Billy Connolly, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Coogan and Brydon both have a go at Al Pacino in Heat and those matching James Bonds, Sean Connery and Roger Moore. When Coogan goes frozen-faced as a 007 villain ( “Come, come, Mr. Bond, you get just as much pleasure from killing as I do”), Brydon observes, “You look like you’re recovering from a stroke and getting mobility again.” And if a marathon of two Brit Rich Littles doesn’t appeal, attend to the pair’s inspired improvs of a medieval hero leading his troops to battle, or of their exegesis of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Says Coogan to Brydon: “I would have thought you’d have preferred Olivia Newton John’s version of Xanadu.”
At the beginning of their week’s sojourn, Brydon suggests they stop to dine at an ordinary place serving food eaten by real people. When Coogan demurs that that’s been done before, Brydon says, “It’s 2010. Everything’s been done before. All you can do is do something that someone’s done before but do it better or different.” The Trip may have familiar elements — it’s pretty much My Dinner With Andre pinned to the plot of Alexander Payne’s Sideways — but the badinage provides an immediate and lasting kick, as well as the spectacle of two champion combatants at the top of their game.