King Kong vs. Godzilla. Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed. Steve Coogan vs. Rob Brydon?
In The Trip, Michael Winterbottom's riotous and resplendent road movie, two of Britain's comedy titans face off in an epic match of dueling impressions. Does Coogan, the acerbic, hangdog star of 24 Hour Party People and the out-of-Sundance-and-into-oblivion Hamlet II, do a better Michael Caine? Does Brydon, stocky, spry, and much loved in his homeland for his hit BBC series and eponymous TV fare, do the more nuanced Sean Connery as James Bond?
It's a relentless and relentlessly funny game of one-upmanship as the two men, playing somewhat exaggerated versions of themselves, roam the hills and dales, posh inns and poetic ruins of England's Lake District.
The Trip was originally shot for British television and reedited as a rambling but illuminating odyssey that has as much to do with friendship - and the competition and conflicts that come with it - as it does with celebrating the comedic chops of its two stars. The jokes, the riffing, the almost scary channeling of Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino and Woody Allen, will throw you into paroxysms - I'll give a dollar to anyone who can watch this film without cracking up - but Winterbottom isn't merely playing it for laughs. By the end, when Coogan and Bryson have returned to their respective London abodes (Brydon to a comfy townhouse and loving wife, Coogan to a modern high-rise, and to no one), The Trip is awash in a kind of cathartic melancholy.
The premise: Coogan has been invited by a magazine to review a week's worth of fancy restaurants in the Lake District and the Yorkshire Moors. At the last minute, his girlfriend opts out, heading for the States instead. So Coogan calls to see if Brydon might want to tag along.
Coogan and Brydon worked together in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Winterbottom's meta-adaptation of the 18th-century novel. The two played three members of the Shandy family between them, but also played themselves - actors making the film. An amicable combativeness was evident, and Winterbottom clearly thought he could milk it for more. He has.
As the gents settle down for their hand-dived scallops and lakeland venison, their cockle butters and chestnut foams, swilling from their wine glasses with knowing nods (as foodies, they're pretty much clueless), the banter and the bad puns, the quotations from 007 and Hannibal Lecter, ensue. And in between the dinners and the discourse and the drives, Coogan mopes about his career, his life. He's on the phone to his agent in America, talking about a TV series in L.A. Or he's trying to reach his girlfriend - the lousy connection makes for a pretty good metaphor.
I've seen The Trip twice now, first at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, where the audience was ecstatically loopy by the end, and then again a few weeks ago. And even when you know that the battle of the Caines is coming, or that scene in the churchyard, among centuries-old gravestones, with each delivering the imagined eulogy for the other, there's none of that empty echo-effect - the experience of realizing that on the second go, the movie you thought was so hilarious, really isn't.
If anything, The Trip, the second time around, is even funnier.