In spite of himself

Steve Coogan plays a (hilarious) jerk named Steve Coogan in The Trip

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan share a rare moment of culinary harmony in Michael Winterbottom's The Trip

FILM Apparently Steve Coogan in no way cares if you think he's an asshole. Fitting, then, that he has perfected an onscreen persona as vain and insecure as it is vapid and self-indulgent. Playing a fictionalized version of oneself has always been a tricky proposition, but Coogan has taken the gambit of self-portrayal-as-schmuck to the level of masochistic brilliance (Larry David, take note). Why would someone this purportedly insecure want to expose himself for the insecure mess that he is? Who cares? In The Trip, comedy as self-flagellation goes down with the ease of an expertly mixed cocktail at a Michelin-starred eatery.

Eclectic British director Michael Winterbottom, who previously worked with British actor Coogan in 2005's Brechtian Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and the 2002 cult fave 24 Hour Party People, humiliates Coogan (2008's Tropic Thunder) on all number of levels in this largely improvised comic romp through England's Lake District. Well, romp might be the wrong descriptive. Dubbed a "foodie Sideways" but more plaintive and less formulaic than that sun-dappled California affair, this TV-to-film adaptation displays a characteristic English glumness to surprisingly keen emotional effect.

Ironically, the "real" Coogan's persona is rooted in a fictional character. Alan Partridge, the sniveling talk show host Coogan has embodied in all his vile glory for nearly two decades, has come to virtually define him not only as an actor but also, perversely, as a man. Partridge's penchant for clueless assholery has reached legendary proportions in the United Kingdom, and the Coogan-is-Partridge attitude is clearly widespread. "Is it true what they say about you?" a young man asks before holding up a copy of the Daily Mail with the screaming headline "Coogan is a Cunt." Yes, it's part of the actor's dream sequence, but it nicely folds his rampant insecurity together with the affirmation that (as seen in The Trip, anyway) he is indeed pretty much just that.

Coogan displays all the characteristically carefree joie de vivre of a colonoscopy patient with hemorrhoids as he sloshes through the gray northern landscape trying to get cell reception in between dining on haute cuisine and being wracked with self-doubt over his stalled movie career. His happily married, happy-go-lucky frenemy, comic actor Rob Brydon (his Tristram Shandy costar, also playing himself here), is subjected to constant denigration during their travels but takes it all in stride. "I'd love to quote your work back at you, but I don't know any of it," Coogan jabs after Brydon does a spot-on Partridge. A particular highlight is the much-vaunted scene featuring the pair's dueling Michael Caine impressions.

While Coogan can't help but come off like a pathetic middle-aged prick in a puffy coat, somehow his confused narcissism is our perverse panacea. Also be sure to enjoy the snot martinis and scallops, as well as Brydon's gleeful "small man in a box" routine. Just don't be put off by the schadenfreude. Coogan insists.

THE TRIP opens Fri/17 in Bay Area theaters.


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