One of the cool things about Michael Winterbottom is that you simply never know what you're going to get each time out. As the director of films like Welcome to Sarajevo, Wonderland, 24 Hour Party People, Code 46, Tristram Shandy, The Killer Inside Me, and a bunch of others, the filmmaker seems firmly intent on being one of those "eclectic" directors, one who'll leap from comedy to tragedy sci-fi to avant-garde weirdness with an admirable enthusiasm. (It's the kind of thing that makes us admire directors like Howard Hawks, Robert Wise, and Danny Boyle: they try a slightly new genre each time out.)
It's Winterbottom's devotion to being different that makes his latest, the low-key two-character comedy The Trip, no real surprise at all. That the movie is so strangely endearing and consistently funny is a satisfying discovery, but, again, not much of a surprise.
The premise is this: two British comedians (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) will take a road trip to Northern England in order to write a magazine article about the area's best restaurants. And off they go.
That's literally the entire plot. Which is fine with me.
Coogan and Brydon make for an endlessly watchable duo, and their car trips and frequent meals are peppered with long and very amusing volleys of British banter. Coogan is a stunningly quick wit, Brydon is an endearingly funny master of impersonations (his Michael Caine is simply wonderful), and their non-stop chat sessions are both intelligent and rather bizarre. Much of the fun comes from seeing two professional comics try to one-up (or crack up) the other, and this allows much of The Trip to feel like a comfy session of eavesdropping. One imagines that a real dinner between Coogan and Brydon would feel a lot like this movie.
The pair also takes time to stop at a few locations of literary interest: Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the Bronte sisters are only a few of their discussion topics, plus they also get around to arguing about geology, James Bond, and (of course) ABBA. The flick is little more than a British road version of My Dinner With Andre, but there's also a small dash of poignancy in the duo's trek. Coogan, for example, is perpetually stressed about "hitting it big" in America, while Brydon is rather content with this UK successes and his sweet little family at home. That's not to say this is a particularly "deep" film, but it has a small thread of sincerity running through its mostly silly banter battles.
Shot and cut like a lazy Sunday afternoon (that's a compliment), The Trip simply bounces from car ride to exterior shot to dining room with no sense of rush or urgency. Coogan wittily beds a few ladies and laments his faraway girlfriend while Brydon flirts with his wife during late-night phone calls. Then it's off to another hotel, restaurant, or location of local interest. To his credit, Winterbottom is satisfied to let his two travelers to carry the charming little movie.
As icing on the cake, The Trip offers some truly gorgeous UK landscapes and shows off some stunningly alluring foodstuffs as Coogan and Brydon meander through the moors. If the full trip takes a bit too long to get where it's going, that's not a big problem when your traveling companions are so damn funny.