REVIEW: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon Explore the Meaning of Life, and Duckfat Lollies, in The Trip

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Michael Winterbottom is one of the great unsung directors, if only for his chutzpah: One minute he's brashly cutting new windows into old works by Thomas Hardy and Laurence Sterne; the next he's concocting a version of Jim Thompson's shivery pulp masterpiece The Killer Inside Me that exceeds its source material's grim explicitness (though not in a good way); the next he's tracing the disintegrating arc of a couple's relationship by showing actors engaging in nonsimulated sex. But Winterbottom isn't just a stuntman: He'll try anything, but he'll do it differently every time. And in the process -- even at times in his less-successful experiments -- he'll come up with an intelligent and nuanced take on a complex political situation, or an observation about the things we demand (or recoil from) in a literary adaptation, or just an unexpected insight into what scares people the most, or gives them the most joy. Whatever the subject, he puts on his waders and steps right in.

The Trip, in which comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play versions of themselves on a restaurant tour of England's north country, wasn't conceived as a movie. It originally appeared as a six-part BBC mini-series, and though I haven't seen the original, I marvel at the way Winterbottom and his actors have captured the essence of your garden-variety midlife crisis in this lively and often bitterly funny two-hour distillation. Like many of Winterbottom's projects, this rambling road movie is mostly improvised, although Coogan and Brydon worked out the trajectory of each scene in advance. (The two appeared together in Winterbottom's marvelous and underappreciated 2005 Tristram Shandy: A Cock-and-Bull Story.) While Brydon, who's Welsh, isn't as well-known in the States as Coogan is, he's an enormously gifted comic actor, particularly as seen in his recurring role on the BBC series Gavin & Stacy (about a Welsh woman and an English guy who have the audacity to fall in love). Together Brydon and Coogan explore, in a way that at first seems subtle but ends up being almost unnervingly brave, their sense of personal vanity, their insecurities, their tendency toward jealousy.

As The Trip opens, we learn that Coogan has accepted a restaurant-junket assignment from a magazine. He was hoping to bring his (much younger) girlfriend along, not least because the two seem to be having a bit of relationship trouble. Unfortunately for him, she's otherwise engaged, he has to ring up Brydon -- "I've asked other people, but they're all too busy," he says, putting an extra bit of poison on the arrowhead -- and Brydon accepts the offer even though it means leaving his wife and infant daughter for a week.

In the early moments of The Trip, you wonder if either actor will survive the enterprise. They needle each other about things great and small: Brydon criticizes Coogan's choice of music for the early leg of the trip (it's Joy Division's "Atmosphere", a nod to both Coogan's Manchester background and his role as Factory records honcho Tony Wilson in 24-Hour Party People). Upon learning that the two have to share a room at the first inn on their docket, Coogan insists loudly, and with unwarranted surliness, that under no circumstances is Brydon to touch his bum.

Coogan has an air of schoolboy arrogance about him; Brydon is the scrapper who goes on the defensive almost before the offensive is launched. They natter and bicker as they drive through the countryside (barely noticing, it seems, its sheep-dotted glory) and as they sit down to elegantly set, minimalist restaurant tables, consuming a number of painstakingly prepared meals (many of which appear to consist mostly of foam, though the two also marvel at the existence of a duck-fat lolly). Through it all, the two argue about Coogan's assertion that England has a stronger national identity than Wales does; about the profound life choices they've made, Brydon's to marry and have children, Coogan's to run around with younger women (though he also has children himself); about their respective achievements and successes. Coogan muses aloud about how, as one gets older, the likelihood of food getting stuck in one's teeth increases exponentially. (Brydon attributes this horrifying phenomenon, helpfully, to gum recession.) They trade impressions of Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Woody Allen in an increasingly prickly game of one-upmanship.

Brydon and Coogan spar about everything and nothing and somehow end up covering all the bases. What emerges is a cracked puzzle-piece montage of what it's like to suddenly feel middle-aged, particularly (though not exclusively) if you're a man. Maybe The Trip works so well because it starts out appearing to be about nothing and ends up being about a staunchly believable something: What do you do when you hit your mid-40s and realize your opportunities are contracting rather than widening? Brydon takes it in stride more than Coogan does -- he has that new baby to distract him, for one thing -- but both men are painfully aware of their shrinking possibilities. That they laugh their way through it is where their true valor comes in.

Winterbottom trusts his actors completely -- that's one of his hallmarks as a director, but here, especially, he seems to have let Brydon and Coogan roam as far afield as they wish. The Trip, like many road movies, is something of a meandering work; you wouldn't call it concise. And yet somehow, the result is piercingly direct. Brydon and Coogan set out in search of rich, expensive meals and come face-to-face with their flaws and fears instead. But in the Winterbottom world, that's a holiday well spent.

For more about The Trip, check out Movieline's interview with Brydon and Coogan by clicking here.