In 2005, director Michael Winterbottom collaborated with actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on A Cock and Bull Story (if you, like me, live outside of Great Britain, append Tristram Shandy to the front of that title), a backstage drama about a failed attempt to adapt Laurence Sterne's highly experimental 18th Century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, in which Coogan and Brydon played highly fictionalised versions of themselves as antagonistic egomaniacs fighting for prominence within the fake film's fake production. Five years later, the three men teamed back up for a sequel of sorts: a six-episode comedy series for BBC called The Trip, in which Coogan as "Coogan" and Brydon as "Brydon" once again find themselves thrown together under circumstances that are rather less than cordial; Winterbottom proceeded to reduce the three hours of the original into a 107 minute feature, largely completed as a way of letting those of us in the rest of the world get at least a flavor of the thing, although in the event, the feature film version premiered at the Toronto Film Festival before the series it was based on started airing in Britain. Because things being straightforward is no fun at all.

A sequel, if only because the characters Coogan and Brydon are so clearly recognisable from A Cock and Bull Story, though there's no other sort of continuity between the two projects, and they're pursuing largely different concerns. Gone is the dense meta-commentary on stardom and filmmaking, in is a much more straightforward tale of professional rivalry and the existential terror of hitting the age where you don't get to keep imagining that you're young enough that you can be successful later. The plot, which is as thin and willowy as they come, finds Coogan begging Brydon to accompany him on a trip to the North of England as part of a restaurant tour that Coogan is undertaking at the request of The Observer; the trip was originally meant to be a fun thing for him to do with his much younger American girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley), but since she's gone back to the States to take a break from their relationship, that plan has gone a bit wrong.

This kicks off a largely-improvised six-day trip from restaurant to restaurant, from one cozily fussy hotel to the next, during which Coogan waxes and wanes in his impatience with his traveling companion, who insists on spending every waking moment trotting out his celebrity impersonations. The two men bicker about what makes for a good impression, about whether impressions are a valid form of comedy in the first place (certainly, Brydon seems quite content with the career he's built out of them), and at times of relative peace, enjoy one another's company in full-on improv sessions, filling up the long car trips with bantering word play that drifts from barely-hidden contempt to good comradeship and back. Underlying all of it is Coogan's frustration that his American agent (Kerry Shale) can't find him any parts in big Hollywood movies or TV shows (given that real-life Coogan's U.S. work includes Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, it's hard to say whether movie Coogan is getting the better deal or not).

The shortest way to describe it, in effect, is "two comedians engage in a dick-measuring contest on a road trip", and The Trip is pretty much the funniest version of that scenario that could exist. There's a scene in which the two actors break down how to properly impersonate Michael Caine that is, without doubt, one of the best comic bits about making comedy that I have ever seen, for example. But that being said, the film is slightly broken by its trip from series to feature; I have yet had the chance to see the television version, but its little sibling is paradoxically too long and repetitive, and far too rushed and insubstantial. I have little doubt that watching The Trip in six 30-minute chunks, and not all at one time, is a far more satisfying way to go about it: the film version so blatantly wears its episodic nature on its sleeve, breaking things up with title cards proclaiming each new day, and by the fourth time this happens, it's hard not to be a little restless with the sure knowledge that, here comes another scene where Brydon does impersonations and Coogan mocks him; then a sequence where they eat overly-fussy food that neither of them seems to entirely understand (the biggest open question to me about the whole film is whether or not Winterbottom was satirising foodie culture or trying to show off how wonderful everything looks, with all the attention he pays to the bustle in the various kitchens; some combination of the two, presumably, but to what degree it's hard to say), and then it all ends with a bit where Coogan shows off his travel guide-level knowledge of the various landmarks and geographic features of that day's journey. Broken up into actual episodes, this would undoubtedly have felt less draggy; meanwhile, the film largely jettisons what I am told is the series' more reflective, elegiac moments, undercutting the characters' feelings and psychology in favor of emphasising all the funny bits. Which goes very badly for the film when the whole plot ends up turning on Coogan's thready relationship with his son, who is introduced so arbitrarily that he doesn't even seem to matter right up until he matters a hell of a lot.

That is my way of saying, not that The Trip no good, but that The Trip should be so much better, and I have the hope that it is better, in its natural environment. For the parts of The Trip that work, are unendurably hilarious: Coogan and Brydon - the actors, not the characters - have the kind of easy rapport that most romantic comedy leads will never know and could never dream about; scene after scene rolls by of them just tossing lines back and forth like champion-level tennis players, and if The Trip ends up feeling over-long and repetitive, not the least reason is because there comes a point where one is simply worn out from laughing. Even some of the undernourished "serious" parts work: a scene of Coogan trying and failing to copy Brydon's "small man trapped in a box" routine in the privacy of his hotel room is funny on the face of it, and desperately sad underneath: the blustering, sardonic actor confronting in private his awareness that he's not as successful as he likes because he doesn't understand what other people like to laugh at, reduced to aping a comic bit whose appeal completely evades him.

Moments like that make The Trip a wonderful treat to watch; they also make The Trip all the more frustrating, by implying a much richer and fuller experience than we get in this butchered version. As comedy, this can't be topped, but it's hard to love it all the way when it keeps pointing out how essentially hollow it is.