There are some celebrities who manage to put up a wall of secrecy around their lives, and who make a clear distinction between their public and private personas. And then there are people like Steve Coogan, a major British comedy star who’s built a unique and very funny career out of blazing two career paths.
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Coogan has built a rabid cult following in the U.S. to go with his more noticeable British stardom by alternately immersing himself in characters and impersonations so thoroughly he’s compared to the legendary Peter Sellers. Yet he’s also wildly popular back home for letting himself play the fool, Larry David-style, in a series of awkward and embarrassing filmed misadventures. And now he’s put both approaches together quite winningly in the new comedy “The Trip,” which has been doing strong and growing business at arthouses nationwide for the past couple of weeks.
In “The Trip,” which is actually a tightly edited mix of highlights from a BBC mockumentary series of the same name, Coogan teams up with his friendly rival and fellow comic Rob Brydon for a tour of Northern England’s finest restaurants. The idea is to combine humorous insights with genuine culinary opinions for a TV series, but while their stops at gourmet restaurants and deluxe bed and breakfasts offer up plenty of delicious imagery, the actual focus of the film and their journey within it is to create a framework for the two leads’ non-stop and hilarious banter.
Coogan and Brydon are genuine friends and fantastic at one-upping each other here on screen. While director Michael Winterbottom – who previously directed Coogan as a wild British concert promoter in the cult classic “24 Hour Party People” – is at the helm, he knows that these two are at their best when they’re cutting loose with an endless string of hilarious impersonations, climaxing in a tour de force battle royale of who can do the best Sean Connery.
Yet “The Trip” does offer some surprising detours as well. In its rare quiet moments it serves as a thoughtful meditation on the price people like Coogan pay for putting so much of their personalities out into the public. Wherever he wanders on his own seeking a moment of peace and quiet, someone – even in the most remote of villages – is ready to jump out from a corner and scare the daylights out of him with impersonations of his comedy bits.
The film also manages to draw a subtle portrait of the differences that grow between even the best of friends when one takes on the commitment of marriage and family while the other continues trying to live the immature life of a playboy. Brydon is the family man and gradually shows the emotional strain of being away from his loved ones, while Coogan engages in emotionally empty one-night stands that are unseen yet end with the women sneaking out on him in the morning.
Adding the icing of genuine emotions to the rich cake of their zesty performances, Coogan and Brydon have created a film in which longtime fans and those who are new to their charms will all be amply rewarded with 90 minutes of laughter.