The stars of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) reteam with director Michael Winterbottom for a comic road trip through northern England. Once again, the longtime friends and collaborators play fictional versions of themselves in a mostly improvised and revealing portrait of middle-age angst. After a festival run that included stops at the Toronto and San Francisco International Film Festivals, the film settles into theaters where enough fans of bone-dry Brit humor and Coogan's determinedly obnoxious persona should turn up to ensure modest box office returns.
Just after the London Observer hires Steve (Coogan) to review upscale restaurants in the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, his younger, American girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley) puts their relationship on hiatus, leaving him out of a travel companion. Steve reluctantly turns to his pal Rob (Brydon) to accompany him on this journey through historic sites and bucolic countryside. En route, they pit Michael Caine impression against Michael Caine impression and Brydon's sunny optimism drives the dour, fretful Coogan bonkers.
Coogan is a man with issues. He's heartbroken by Mischa (even if he was less than fully committed to her) and painfully aware that he isn't as famous or as successful as he'd thought he'd be by now. To remedy at least part of his lot, he's contemplating an offer to work in America that might make him the household name he'd like to be, but if he accepts the job will take him away from his children. Steve is peevish and jealous. By contrast, his diminutive Welsh buddy is happy with a lot in life that includes a satisfactory level of renown, a wife he adores, a new baby and a smartphone app (of his "Small Man Trapped in a Box").
There is a certain amount of hilarity in watching the easygoing, completely unflappable Brydon get on Coogan's every last nerve. Also, these are smart, literate guys and it's a lot of fun watching their competition whether they are offering dueling impersonations or trying to top each other in the realm of historical trivia.
Coogan is brilliant at playing this type of exasperating, sometimes repellent character.
It's to Coogan's credit, as well as Brydon's and Winterbottom's, that The Trip isn't an extended riff between comedians-it's something more. Beneath the show biz gloss and the appalling behavior is a man struggling to come terms with his life. As he needles Brydon endlessly, the envy that compels him is transparent, but it is hard to tell what gets under Coogan's skin more: Brydon's evident happiness or his sense of equanimity. The Trip is a little repetitive at times, but it is mostly a sharp rendering of an uneasy relationship and of midlife reckoning.
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Margo Stilley
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Producer: Andrew Eaton, Melissa Parmenter
Running time: 107 min.
Release date: June 10 NY