Jokesters Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play comic versions of themselves in the form of rivalrous showbiz buddies on a restaurant jaunt in rural England in director Michael Winterbottom’s breezy “The Trip.”
The film is a condensation of a six-episode BBC series, which was inspired by the dueling-performer personas created by Coogan and Brydon in Winterbottom’s film “Tristram Shandy.” That doesn’t spell the makings of a big-screen triumph.
But thanks to these actors’ inspired improvisations and winning rapport, the journey proves engaging and the laughs are frequent.
Presented mock-doc style, the narrative involves two middle-aged entertainers and longtime pals whose relationship involves genuine mutual affection, but also a competitiveness laced with antagonism. The latter often dominates their dynamics.
Coogan plays Steve, a vain, discontented, womanizing fame-seeker who gripes that Michael Sheen is getting the roles that should be his. Brydon’s Rob is a good-natured family man who, rather than yearning for Hollywood glory, does impressions of A-listers.
The opening passage sets the tone impeccably. Steve, assigned to write a newspaper piece on restaurants in the English countryside, seeks a traveling companion after his girlfriend bails. He invites Rob, rubbing in the fact that he’s asked other people first.
What follows is a talky mix of driving, sightseeing, lodging and eating, with the comedy generally stemming from the camaraderie and the one-upmanship that jointly characterize the men’s interactions.
Steve always wants the bigger hotel room and appears irked whenever Rob ends up ordering the superior meal (usually scallops). Rob tolerates Steve’s putdowns but outshines Steve when doing impressions. His riff on Michael Caine and the actor’s changing vocal range is particularly precious.
As with most road tales, slow patches exist. And, with its TV origins and the prolific Winterbottom’s tendency to deliver sketchy fare rather than nothing at all, the film sometimes has a doodle quality.
But Coogan and Brydon are a witty, stirringly entertaining pair, and their in-character performances and comic chemistry allow us to both buy into the road-trip fiction and enjoy the men as an improv act.
Not all will find every joke hilarious, but as the two concoct costume-drama scenes, belt out an ABBA song, and consider hypothetical dilemmas (would Steve trade away his child’s health in order to receive a best-actor Oscar?), among other highlights, the nuggets add up.
Brydon, Coogan and Winterbottom also deliver some subsurface seriousness, which enriches the picture texturally and emotionally.
As for the food, Brits may approve of the regional fare, but Alice Waters it isn’t. The consistency is a “bit like snot,” Coogan’s Steve says of a dubious-looking green cocktail. But it “tastes great.”
Starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Running time 1 hour 41 minutes