Film Review: The Trip

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon pair up again, ostensibly for a culinary tour of northern England, but really to win bragging rights for the best Michael Caine.

George Costanza famously described “Seinfeld,” or rather the sitcom he and Jerry were developing on “Seinfeld,” as a show about nothing; the epigraph equally applies to The Trip, a feature-length film that dispenses with plot and script and, in fact, requires no review. If you liked Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as the querulous actors in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, you’ll enjoy this exercise in comic improvisation. It will help if you’re an Anglophile hungering (literally, as it turns out) for a holiday in the bucolic Lake District and Yorkshire Dales of northern England, and if you remember your Wordsworth and Coleridge, and if you are familiar with peculiar British pastimes such as rambling. You should enjoy voice impersonations, too, especially of British male actors of a certain age. And drollery…you should have a high tolerance for drollery and affectionate raillery.

Right, then. For those who aren’t committed Coogan-and-Brydon-ites, we’ll add a disclaimer. The Trip isn’t completely plotless. The story, such as it is, has a setup: An idle actor named Steve (Coogan) has been assigned by The Observer to dine at six posh restaurants with names like Hipping Hall, all of them nestled in quaint villages with names like Clitheroe, with the goal of producing an article for the Sunday paper on the Michelin-starred food, the area’s upscale B&Bs, and the picturesque environs in early spring. Steve was to be accompanied by his foodie girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley), but because she’s flown back to the States in a huff, Steve coaxes his buddy Rob (Brydon), a fellow thespian, to join him instead. Off they go.

Steve and Rob fill the time between meals, which requires much driving on rural roads as they move from inn to inn, riffing on whatever comes to mind (imagining Braveheart-like speeches before battle, competing to see who has the broader octave range, spontaneously delivering each other’s eulogy). Most of the time they trade impressions (Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen…Michael Caine as a young man and as an old man, Michael Caine angry, sad, sentimental). They’re a hoot, although, nearing the two-hour mark, the bits get a little tired. As Steve’s father says about Rob’s incessant routines when the travelers stop for a quick visit with Coogan’s parents, “It’s exhausting.”

One thing the two comedians rarely talk about is the cuisine. “Waddya got, plenty of…heat…in my scallops,” says Rob as Al Pacino, establishing their brand of food criticism. Meanwhile, director Michael Winterbottom lovingly captures the preparation of the various dishes, the waiters’ florid presentations, and the spectacular landscapes—The Trip turns into a travelogue despite itself—while Steve and Rob debate deal-with-the-devil career moves, such as whether either would permit one of their children to suffer an illness in exchange for his winning an Oscar.

The film (which, it should be noted, is a condensation of a short series aired on the BBC) depends entirely on Steve and Rob’s considerable wit and charm, although Winterbottom contrives a kind of narrative arc contrasting Rob’s happy family life with Steve’s compulsive womanizing. For Rob, the return home promises warmth and amity; for Steve, a blue lonesomeness. Underneath the constant joking and banter lies the sadness of the clown, so much so that The Trip leaves us with a pleasant melancholy, a little weary of our traveling companions but missing them just the same.