I admit it. I have a crush on Steve Coogan.
You might know him as the adorably soft-hearted Roman companion to Owen Wilson’s miniature cowboy in the “Night at the Museum” series, or as the bumbling but charming Phileas Fogg across Jackie Chan in “Around the World in 80 Days.”
But long before his Hollywood career began, the comedian was entertaining British audiences with his popular faux alter ego, the TV and radio personality Alan Partridge (YouTube him, you won’t be sorry).
When “Philomena,” a biographical drama Coogan co-wrote and co-starred in, was nominated for four Oscars last year, the time seemed ripe to share my Coogan fixation with the world — or at least the greater Kittitas County.
And that’s when I discovered a little gem on Netflix called “The Trip.” Its sequel, “The Trip to Italy,” was released in the U.S. last month on DVD and Netflix after playing the Sundance Film Festival last year.
Premiered originally as 30-minute episodes on the BBC, the series was turned into two feature-length films for international markets, bequeathing a combined three hours and 35 minutes of unadulterated Coogan — paired with equally hilarious travel mate Rob Brydon — to the appreciative home viewer (me).
The first film opens on Coogan in a swank London apartment phoning fellow comedian Brydon to accompany him on a paid trip to the north of England to review restaurants for The Observer newspaper. Brydon eagerly accepts the plum job, despite Coogan’s insinuation he was basically his last resort as companion.
It’s our first glimpse into the duo’s laugh-out-loud rapport. Coogan’s cynicism and general bad humor are pitted against the enthusiasm and good cheer of Brydon, famous for his “Small Man Trapped in a Box” voice (again, YouTube it — no regrets), and the two endlessly needle one another. The tagline for the film reads, “Eat, drink and try not to kill each other.”
Many of their funniest confrontations concern whose impersonations are more authentic (watch especially for Michael Caine, James Bond, Al Pacino and Hugh Grant). Their banter touches on everything from English poets and ABBA lyrics to the prickly realities of careers, aging and relationships.
The catch here is that the entire endeavor is a set-up. In the long tradition of self-satirizing comedians playing exaggerated versions of themselves, what we see on screen is largely fiction. Events that take place on the trip are outlined in advance and secondary characters, including family members, are played by actors.
The premise of the culinary tour is a front for director Michael Winterbottom’s true objective: stick the two wits together and eavesdrop on their improvised exchanges over long car rides, several-course meals and overnight stays at luxury inns. Having worked with the two actors before, Winterbottom knew the mix would make magic.
“The Trip to Italy”
If in the first film Coogan gamely plays a somewhat disgruntled caricature of himself as a pretentious philanderer slouching toward middle age, in the sequel, “The Trip to Italy,” it’s Brydon who seems adrift, waxes melancholic and ultimately cheats on his “wife.” Coogan, in turn, seems to be enjoying a sweeter moment in both his career and his relationship with his teenage “son.”
Though Coogan worries they’ll face “second album syndrome” with a new voyage, the sequel successfully continues the formula, sending the duo this time to trace the Romantic poets’ footsteps across Italy. They zip from mountain to coast in a Mini Cooper in homage to the Caine classic “The Italian Job,” singing along, naturally, to Alanis Morissette.
To enjoy not just one, but two “Trips,” I’ll admit you have to find Coogan and Brydon eminently watchable. There’s not much action, or even plot, to accompany their banter. But there is a healthy dose of food porn as Winterbottom’s cameras follow the meticulous preparation of the many lovely dishes served to the two actors at every stop.
The settings are also beautifully captured: Northern England’s bucolic, overcast terrains are reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel (now with Coogan wandering the hills in search of cell phone coverage), and Italy simply dazzles.
Curiously it may be the quieter moments of both films that stay with the viewer, offsetting the hilarity with an introspection that is perhaps that much more poignant because it’s both contrived and unexpected. We see this especially at both trips’ conclusions — the contrast between Brydon’s familial homecoming and Coogan’s empty apartment in “The Trip,” and Brydon’s cheater’s guilt versus Coogan’s warm father-son communion in “The Trip to Italy.”
At one point in the first film as Coogan attempts to cross a river on stones only to get stuck midway and plunge into the water, Brydon shouts, “It’s a metaphor!” You might find yourself wondering what other metaphors you missed amidst the laughs.
Or you might just enjoy watching Coogan.