This clever, quirky 'Trip' is worth the journey

Steve Coogan, left, and Rob Brydon excel in verbal jousting in "The Trip."

Steve Coogan -- playing Steve Coogan, actor and celebrity food critic -- is disgruntled at the outset. It's been ages since he was gruntled. But he's seriously disgruntled today. Seems he took an assignment to tour the North country's finest restaurants as a getaway junket with his hot girlfriend, but she backed out at the last minute, and he's forced to dig low in the depth chart for a substitute companion: his best and most annoying friend, Rob Brydon -- played by Rob Brydon.

BBC fans familiar with that dysfunctionally dynamic duo will delight in their latest teaming in "The Trip," a condensed feature-film version of a largely improvised six-part sitcom series, directed by the wonderfully idiosyncratic Michael Winterbottom. Yankees unfamiliar with Coogan & Brydon should take a chance on being delighted, too.

Troubles are not long in arising: The first lovely country inn on their itinerary is overbooked and has only one room for them, instead of two -- with a single bed. Steve is furious. "Are you going to touch my bottom?" he asks Rob. "Were you abused as an altar boy?"

"Only verbally," Rob replies.

This, and all subsequent situations, serve as springboards for the fast-and-furious word game competitions and impressions at which they excel. Their dueling Michael Caine impersonations take the "running gag" to new heights. At one point, Mr. Brydon perfectly mimics the entire career-spanning evolution of Caine's voice from "Alfie" to "The Dark Knight." But their dueling Sean Connerys ("I'd like a vodka martini -- shaken, not stirred," as 007) and Al Pacinos are equally hilarious. Not to mention spot-on sendups of Anthony Hopkins, Woody Allen and Dustin Hoffman (as autistic "Rain Man").

Along the way, on the serious or pseudo-serious side, Steve beds the always-willing hotel help, yet derives no satisfaction from his sexual conquests. He's constantly in search of a good cell phone connection for trans-Atlantic arguments with girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley) and superficial voicemail messages to the adolescent son he rarely sees, while Rob remains the ever-faithful husband and father.

Most of all, he's in search of reviving his downsized career. Michael Sheen gets all his roles these days. The best his slimy American agent can do is offer him an HBO pilot for a series called "Pathological" ("If it goes, you're a household name."). Only in his dreams does Ben Stiller appear -- in a terrific cameo -- to say, "All the geniuses want to work with you, all the brothers, the Coens, the Scotts -- Tony and Ridley!"

Oh, the fine art of impressions! I'm thinking of the late great Tony Curtis' superb one of Cary Grant in "Some Like It Hot." Mr. Brydon rivals it with his recitation of Coleridge's "Xanadu" -- in the voice of Richard Burton. At their best, he and Mr. Coogan together rival their legendary "Beyond the Fringe" predecessors (Dudley Moore, et al.), as in a Shakespearian "Henry V" contest:

"Gentlemen, to bed -- for we rise at daybreak for battle!" Mr. Brydon declaims.

"Gentlemen, to bed -- for we rise at 9:30-ish for a continental breakfast!" Mr. Coogan counter-declaims.

Their self-indulgent bicker-banter sometimes falls flat, but the thing about these two improvisators -- as with the great Mike Nichols and Elaine May -- is that, if you leave the camera or tape running long enough, you'll eventually get some great material. Such as Steve's proposed funeral eulogy for his nemesis-pal: "When I think of Rob, I think of the man who made us all laugh, of all the funny, pithy lines he'd come out with, but I also think -- behind every pithy, vaguely amusing joke -- there was a cry for help."

Director Winterbottom's reunion with Mr. Coogan and Mr. Brydon (after their terrific "Tristram Shandy" of 2006) has produced another smart comedy for smart people, in which Mr. Coogan delivers another smart, parodic self-portrait (and Mr. Brydon gets another chance to reprise his hysterical "Small Man in a Box" shtick from BBC-TV). The attempted poignancy -- tone shifts from funny to somber, sad Satie-esque piano music kicking in -- supplies ersatz melancholy, especially to the ending.

But when it's funny, it's very funny, punctuated by the gourmet-food forays in those to-die-for country inns of Lancashire, Cambria and North Yorkshire. The special whiskey-ginger beer-fennel cocktail? ("The consistency is a bit like that of snot," says Mr. Coogan.) The duck with radishes? The mussels cooked in their own juices with scallops "resting on a bed of baby greens"?

Ummm ... they all look, and surely must taste, superb -- we guess: Mr. Coogan and Mr. Brydon never say so, nor ever really pay attention to the victuals. They're much too busy waging their war of wits and words to shut up and eat.

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