It took a little while, but Steve Coogan appears to have figured out his perfect part. Sure, he became famous among Brits and Anglophiles for his pompous, insecure chat-show host character Alan Partridge, but it’s clear now after The Trip that Partridge wasn’t the role of his career. The pompous, insecure guy he plays best appears to be himself.
The discovery began in Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes, a compilation of vignettes that included Coogan brilliantly playing a self-absorbed version of himself meeting actor Alfred Molina for a strange revelation about their possible shared ancestry. Then, in 2005, he teamed up with occasional collaborator Rob Brydon and director Michael Winterbottom for an adaptation of Tristram Shandy that was as much about “Coogan” as it was about Laurence Sterne’s notoriously unfilmable novel. The reunion of Coogan, Brydon and Winterbottom for The Trip allows for a perfect showcase of the meta-character Coogan has fashioned for himself—even if it’s better as an improvisational lark than at trying to add complexity to that character.
The setup finds Coogan inviting Brydon (also playing “himself”) to join him on a car tour of fine restaurants in the north of England for a magazine assignment Coogan has accepted. Originally intended as a romantic getaway for Coogan and his girlfriend—thwarted because they’re “taking a break” while she’s working on her journalism career in America—it instead becomes a time for the two old pals to exchange witticisms and impressions over the course of six days.
Condensed from what was originally a six-part BBC television series, The Trip occasionally gets serious as Coogan contemplates the state of his life and career. With Brydon playing the upbeat, happily married foil, Coogan wallows in his personal and professional dissatisfaction, indulging in one-night stands and seething quietly when someone recognizes Brydon before recognizing him. The actors’ respective level of acceptance for their middle-age circumstances becomes the defining counterpoint between them: Brydon is content with a career that might never have achieved the white-hot “genius” of Coogan’s finest moments, while Coogan agonizes over not being able to land big Hollywood movie work as he pretends to be “41 for the last 3 years.”
Coogan works well with that material—there’s a surprising resignation in his acknowledgement that “everything’s exhausting at our age”—but all the mid-life contemplation is really just a framework for demonstrating the late critic Gene Siskel’s famous suggestion that some movies are less interesting than a theoretical documentary in which the lead actors have lunch. No one is credited for a screenplay in The Trip, suggesting that the scenes are almost entirely improvised, but the rapport between Coogan and Brydon results in moments that appear to be as genuinely fun for them as they are for viewers. There are brilliant, gaspingly funny sequences involving their attempts at one-upmanship impressions of Michael Caine and a James Bond villain, an improbable juxtaposition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” with Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu” and a deconstruction/performance of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All.” And then there’s the killer scene in which rousing period-piece battlefield speeches (“Gentlemen, to bed, for we leave at first light, and tomorrow we battle”) get a modernized skewering (“Gentlemen, to bed, for we rise at … what time’s the battle? Twelve o’clock? What’s that on horseback, about three hours?” “It’s only a continental breakfast; it will take 20 minutes, maximum”). It may have nothing to do with anything but two gifted comedians trying to top one another, but that’s quite sufficient.
Winterbottom steers the focus more toward Coogan’s self-contemplation over the last half-hour—most notably his decision whether or not to accept a part on an American television series that will keep him from his son for long stretches—which can’t help but feel like a bit of a disappointment given the hilarity of the comic asides. But even the serious reflection can get a wicked kick, like Coogan performing a mock eulogy for Brydon while the pair stand in a graveyard—and refusing to let Brydon get the same opportunity. That’s where Coogan is funniest and most interesting as “Coogan”: the funny guy who isn’t confident enough to let anyone else get in the last word.
Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon