On the road again: A cinematic version of The Trip has set the US talking

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's TV comedy travelogue has made stars of the bickering duo, says Sarah Hughes

It should be the sort of thing that fails to translate: a low-key road movie following two British comedians as they joke, bicker and needle each other through a series of meals in restaurants in northern England. But hits can come from the most surprising places, and so it is that Michael Winterbottom's film version of his BBC series The Trip, which cuts the six-part series into just under two hours of quips and competition, has become one of the best-reviewed movies in America this summer.

Described by The New York Times as "laced with lacerating laughs", compared by The Atlantic to Louis Malle's 1981 classic My Dinner With Andre and praised by The Washington Post as "prickly, poignant and flat-out hilarious", The Trip proves that the best comedy does travel. It also demonstrates that you don't always have to know everything about a subject to find it funny.

The film has also propelled its two stars, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, into the American spotlight (or back into it in Coogan's case) with clips of the scenes in which the two comedians pull out their best (and worst) impersonations (from Sean Connery to Al Pacino) becoming hits on YouTube. A clip of their duelling Michael Caine impressions, in which the two men argue over who can best impersonate the famously nasal actor, has now attracted more than 800,000 views.

Yet if The Trip was solely about who can best declaim "You're a big man but you're out of shape", it would not have become such a sleeper hit. In America, a large part of the film's fascination lies in guessing just how close to their warring characters the two men really are.

Thus while Brydon, who is barely known in the US, has seen reviews focus on his "likeability" and his reputation for being a "family man", American critics have been predominantly concerned with Coogan, with questions ranging from why he hasn't cracked Hollywood to whether he really wants that kind of success at all.

For Coogan, this must be, partially, a bittersweet experience. Highly regarded by American comedians – Harry Shearer, of This Is Spinal Tap fame, admitted to an obsession with Alan Partridge and Janeane Garofalo named him as one of her five favourite comic actors – Coogan has never quite had the US success he might have expected. In recent years, the likes of Russell Brand and Sacha Baron Cohen have taken his place as America's go-to British funnyman.

Indeed, The Trip acknowledges this. Much of the tension within the film comes from his character's yearning for celebrity and despair over the state of his career. While that despair is clearly exaggerated, it is also the case that the much-hyped Around The World in 80 Days was an ignominious flop which failed to make Coogan an A-list star, and while he has shone in smaller roles such as his entertaining turn as an egotistical director in the raucous comedy Tropic Thunder, he remains something of an acquired taste in the US. As New York magazine has pointed out, there is a prickliness to Coogan which many Americans find hard to relate to. "The character of Alan Partridge never crossed over to American television because it would have needed sweetening up, à la the British Office," the writer concluded.

That is a quote that would almost certainly resonate with Coogan, whose character in The Trip is obsessed by the vagaries of fame, permanently worrying about his status, nervous that the (superficially) more genial Brydon might have more genuine popular appeal.

In interviews with the American press, however, Coogan has said that being big in Hollywood is not a priority. "I'd like to reach as many people as possible, but I'm not preoccupied with it," he told The Wall St Journal. "If you make a Faustian pact to make as much money as possible, you can disappoint the core audience. If I cross over I'll be pleased but I'm not obsessed."

It is true that while The Trip has been rapturously received, it remains an art-house release, expected to do most of its business in on-demand viewing and DVD sales. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the feeling that these days, Coogan might be happier with cult success.

"The cooler people in America know me for 24 Hour Party People – it's a cold comfort of not being highly successful," he told New York magazine. "But as my father once said, the true secret to success is never to peak, so I'm really on target with that."

Brydon, who is less famous and thus less cagey, has also downplayed talk of breaking it in America, telling New York before the film's airing at the Tribeca Film Festival that: "I've got a big family and I've lots of children and all that, and I don't really see how I'd do it. After A Cock and Bull Story [the loose adaptation of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy in which he also worked with Coogan and Winterbottom] I did some meetings in LA, but I found myself just missing home."

Brydon was equally swift to say that while both A Cock And Bull Story and The Trip might suggest that his relationship with Coogan is somewhat fraught, the truth is rather more mundane. "We're not as competitive," he said. "I think our relationship in real life is warmer and softer, and maybe more tired. I mean, I don't do impressions all the time and we don't annoy each other like we do in the film."

That may be the case but whether the animosity is real or pretend, it is oddly compelling. As Anthony Lane concluded in The New Yorker: "What remains is the record of an uneasy friendship that is somehow both threatened and fortified by competition...[it's a] small, unimportant contest [but it is] weirdly addictive: you come out of the film as if from a concert, playing the music of false voices in your head."

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