Besides attempting to make a film in every genre known to man, along the way aggravating both this viewer (with the pseudo-porn of 9 Songs) and the feminist lobby (with the recent The Killer Inside Me), one of Michael Winterbottom's nobler missions over the past decade has been to keep Steve Coogan on his toes between ego-inflating Hollywood ventures. If the forthcoming Alan Partridge movie turns out to be as good as we surely all hope it's going to be - and thus manages to overturn the time-honoured narrative of televisual excellence going to shit on the big screen - yes, we should heap praise upon Coogan, Armando Iannucci and co., but in some small measure, we'll also have Winterbottom to thank for keeping his semi-regular leading man's timing and instincts sharper than they might have been at this point in his career.
The Trip, like The Road to Guantanamo before it, is one of Winterbottom's more fluid projects, existing as a 109-minute film for the overseas market, and six half-hour episodes going out on Monday nights on the BBC during November and December 2010. Here, the director picks up one of the choicer threads of his 2006 feature A Cock and Bull Story - the improvised interplay between Coogan and cohort Rob Brydon - and lets it run to full feature (or series) length, in the form of a five-day road trip. Coogan (playing himself, or a version thereof) has been commissioned by the Observer to write a piece on the restaurants of the Lake District, allowing him to indulge his tastes for five-star living while notionally following in the footsteps of Coleridge and Wordsworth; his first thought was to invite his latest model girlfriend along, to show her the picturesque North, but she's cancelled on him to do a fashion shoot, and Brydon's ended up tagging along instead.
This Coogan is faithless, demanding and never happy; informed by his agent his career has "momentum", his response is a typically sour "you get momentum when you're going downhill". Brydon, however, is a perfect travelling companion: personable, adaptable, happily married (with child), and availing himself of any opportunity to get out one of his array of celebrity impersonations. It's the latter who provides The Trip's voice of positivity: when Coogan moans that everything of artistic merit has already been done, Brydon concedes the point, but (channeling Tony Wilson, or channeling Coogan channeling Tony Wilson) adds "the trick is to do it better, or differently" - a philosophy the arch postmodernist Winterbottom immediately signs up to by recycling Michael Nyman's score from his own Wonderland, and then playing Joy Division's "Atmosphere" over shots of the sundappled countryside. ("You usually associate it with an urban landscape," Coogan comments on this particular choice of in-car listening.)
Whether on the road, out in the fields, or over hotel dining tables, the two leads' preoccupations remain much the same: women, the state of their teeth, who can do the best Michael Caine impression, their relative celebrity status, nerdy items of trivia only a pair of dyed-in-the-wool blokes would even dream of offering up for discussion. Winterbottom has referred to the project as a meditation on aging, and duly sticks his performers in a graveyard at one point to mark the occasion, but The Trip is looser and larkier than that description allows. (Compare it to the mortal chill evoked in Another Year, and it really does resemble a breezy, rolling sitcom.) It may, in fact, be no more than a meditation on how Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are aging, and you can well imagine Winterbottom's camera revisiting these characters every couple of years for an update; more so than the sallow, mono-dimensional lovers of 9 Songs, these are this director's equivalents of the Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy figures in Before Sunrise/Sunset.
What The Trip does seem to offer, on its director's part, is a genteel concession - off the back of his most controversial film - that he's simply more comfortable presenting a male perspective on the world. The women here - models, hoteliers, photographers; casual fuckbuddies all - drift in and out worse than Coogan's erratic mobile-phone reception, and indeed I think we're supposed to find Coogan's relentless hound-dogging roguishly heroic before it finally gets pathetic and perhaps even tragic. This may be a flaw embedded at the conceptual stage: The Trip is bound up with Romantic (and thus inherently masculine) notions about finding one's self (or versions thereof) in nature - and Marcel Zyskind's painterly cinematography may be the sole reason this project merits any kind of study on the bigger screen.
Whether viewed in cinemas or at home, though, this venture proves a reliable repository of minor pleasures, which are perhaps all we can now expect from this most gadfly of filmmakers. Among them: an impromptu, all-male rendition of Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights"; Coogan's increasingly, hilariously paranoid dream sequences, being a jaded comedian's remix of Coleridge's own visions inspired by this part of the world; the light jus of foodie porn, which is frankly more appetising than anything on display in 9 Songs; the notional recasting of Annie Hall with Les Dawson, a tremendously parochial flight of fancy that has somehow survived into The Trip's international cut; and a final, homeward-bound singalong that seeks to establish "The Winner Takes It All" (above "Knowing Me, Knowing You") as the defining ABBA song in the Coogan repertoire.
The first episode of The Trip can be watched online here; further instalments will screen at 10pm on Monday nights on BBC2. The feature version opens in North America in 2011.