What better way to end my run of films at TIFF than to watch Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon do Michael Caine impressions? I wonder how much of their relentless banter was improvised in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, a free-form cuisine tour of Northern England. The Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story actors continue to play themselves, blasting the screen with more British humour than I have seen in all of Richard Curtis’ films put together.
It does not matter than 80% of the movie is spent in restaurants, or the remaining 15% in Coogan’s Range Rover. The chemistry between Coogan and Brydon is the most dynamic in many years, on both emotional and comical levels. Coogan’s continual complaint is that he is not taken seriously as a dramatic actor; the world still sees him as Alan Partridge. Brydon is content with his BBC shows and argues that it’s better to be ‘warm’ than to be ‘hot’. That’s the tension between the friends: Coogan is desperate to have a second supernova moment and looks down on Brydon’s more modest celebrity; Brydon is stable, married, and disapproves of Coogan’s drug use and girl-chasing.
There is a tendency for this to be a little too narcissistic on Coogan’s part. Shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm have made their name on portraying an artist’s woes as art. Being funny helps though. As long as Brydon can grill Coogan for his ambitions (including explaining why Michael Sheen seems to get all his parts) than the self-pity is tolerable. The dream sequence in which Ben Stiller tells Coogan both Ridley and Tony Scott want to work with him also lightens the load.
The backdrop for this road trip is the beautiful North of England, populated by a high proportion of pretty East European waitresses (Brydon chides his friend for “cementing Anglo-Polish relations”). There is some time for touching reflection amid Brydon’s Hugh Grant phone sex impressions. The most moving is Coogan giving a mock-eulogy for Brydon’s imagined funeral. Though Coogan, king of understatement, never shows it, he does value Brydon and probably envies his happiness. Brydon, though overshadowed by Coogan’s popularity, comes through as an impressive actor able to portray natural sincerity.
Let’s hope that these two reunited on-screen, and I hope that Coogan does get some heavy art house roles in the future. But it would be nice, along the way, if he did some funny too.