Dir. Michael Winterbottom
(2011, Not Rated, 111 min)

British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play exaggerated versions of themselves in The Trip, which was edited down from a six-episode BBC miniseries and could have used some more trimming. At nearly two hours it’s overlong and sometimes repetitive – by the third or fourth round of dueling Michael Caine impersonations, the well has run dry – but as directed by Michael Winterbottom (The Killer Inside Me, A Mighty Heart) and played by its two leads, it has a dry and winning comic tone that’s content to wander, and a surprising undercurrent of melancholy as it becomes not just a road movie, but a story of two middle-aged men who are in very different places in their lives and careers.

Steve accepts an assignment from the Observer newspaper touring restaurants in Northern England and invites his friend Rob to join him, though “friend” may be a strong word for it. Rob is a companion of last resort for Steve, who had intended the excursion for him and his girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley), who at the last minute dropped out of the trip and possibly out of their relationship altogether. As they sample cuisine and travel the northern country roads, they engage in witty banter fueled by competition and insecurity, mostly Steve’s. Rob is happily married with a new baby at home, while Steve is in the midst of a midlife crisis, preoccupied with age, loneliness, and his stature as an artist.

Coogan and Brydon, who improvised much of their dialogue, have a droll conversational style that meanders gracefully from banal subjects to profound life matters and back again. Winterbottom lets scenes play out for long stretches, deriving humor and insight from the peculiar drift of their conversations, whether they’re discussing the progress of their careers, quoting poetry, riffing on cinematic tropes, or at one point contemplating their own funerals. Steve, in particular, seems perplexed by his relationship with Rob, whom he seems to like, envy, and resent all at once. Rob isn’t serious or ambitious enough and is content to amuse others with his celebrity impressions. But the bittersweet closing shots of the film take the true measure of both men.