IN 2005'S TRISTRAM SHANDY: A Cock and Bull Story, British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon played fictionalized versions of themselves. They're reunited, along with director Michael Winterbottom, for The Trip, a six-episode BBC series that's been edited into a two-hour feature for American audiences. It's an odd duck of a movie, and an episodic and generally plotless one, with heavy reliance on improvised scenes between Coogan and Brydon. It helps that the two are both scaldingly hilarious, but one wonders why Winterbottom, always a fearless and provocative director, made the concession to cobble the TV series into a feature—especially during the DVD age, when American audiences are able to appreciate British programs (programmes?) like The Office and Doctor Who in full.
In The Trip, Coogan—only a cult star in the US, but a mammoth one in the UK—enlists Brydon to accompany him on a tour of restaurants around Northern England. Coogan is ostensibly writing a piece for the Observer, but we learn he only took the job to impress his girlfriend. When she takes off for America, Coogan reluctantly brings Brydon along instead. They're an ideal comic duo: Brydon is an affable, chatty Welshman who can hardly speak two sentences without breaking into some sort of impression, while Coogan is brittle and agonizingly vain—Coogan's not afraid to portray himself as an utter prick, which is exhilarating to watch.
Traveling through stately, rustic Northern England, Coogan's arrogance grows more out of place as Brydon's amiability both irritates and subdues him. The two have some marvelous improvised scenes, and Winterbottom scores some captivating photography of both the food and the landscape, but The Trip lacks a center. One can't help but feel that its rambling quality and emphasis on pointed dialogue would make more sense in another format—a TV series, perhaps.