It's hard to know where reality ends and fiction begins with Michael Winterbottom, the prolific British filmmaker who veers between narrative and documentary, often in the same movie.
The Trip, his latest work to hit the states, stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in what might be a documentary, a mock-doc or a loosely jointed fictional road trip that follows the two comedians as they traipse through northern England, eating at some of the best restaurants the country has to offer: L'Enclume, Hipping Hall, Holbeck Ghyll.
Coogan, who is by turns self-aggrandizing, self-pitying, introspective, competitive and always a relentless pussy-hound, is theoretically on assignment from The Observer. (It's one of those vanity bylines for which real writers would kill.) Brydon is along for the ride because Coogan's girlfriend, Mischa, has ditched him. On paper, it sounds dreadful. In practice, it's one of the funniest films of the year and, perhaps, one of the funniest food-themed films ever — at least for the first hour.
Served a sludgy green purée of garden vegetables in a martini glass, Coogan notes that it looks like snot (which, to be fair, it does). He and Brydon riff off each other, making snarky comments about the ridiculous cocktail, then instantly turn straight-faced and praise the meal when the solemn waiter returns.
In another scene that will go down as food cinema's equivalent of the dueling banjos from Deliverance, Coogan and Brydon try to top each other with ever more absurd Michael Caine impressions. (Here's one clips that didn't make the film's final cut: Coogan's Stephen Hawking impression.)
Both scenes are laugh-out-loud-funny, as are so many others, and when you're not watching Coogan and Brydon try to one-up each other, you can watch them play with their wonderful, elaborate and, at times ridiculous, food. Think scallops; lots and lots of scallops.
Like being trapped with a comedian who can't turn off his manic need to perform, the second half of the nearly two-hour film can be painful. It's hard to imagine tolerating the original six-part BBC series, from which this movie was carved. But The Trip offers a piercingly honest look at the diminished dreams of middle age and the unending restlessness of the soul. After all the foams and reductions, the creams and glazes, Coogan and Brydon settle down to a sturdy British breakfast of beans, toast, eggs and sausage before heading home.
Was there ever an assignment for The Observer? (Yes, probably.) Is there a disappointed Mischa waiting in New York? (Probably not.) It doesn't ultimately matter. Even at their neediest and most painful, Coogan and Brydon on their food odyssey are more honest and entertaining than a million Food Network shows.
The Trip is still playing in a couple of local theaters, but if you don't care to leave the house, IFC has made it available on-demand.