Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s shtick—a relentless verbal sparring composed of dueling impressions, poetry recitations, absurdist riffing, and comic one-upmanship—works best in small doses. Which is why the pair’s antics are ideally suited for the half-hour television format, a configuration realized by director Michael Winterbottom when he brought together the comic duo for a six-episode series in which the two men’s tour of the Lake District’s restaurant scene is merely an excuse for the pair to do their comedic thing. But in editing most of the television footage together into a feature length film, the director makes a rather severe miscalculation. What works in bite-sized portions quickly sours as an evening’s extended dining.
Part travelogue, but mostly just prolonged bullshit session, the film follows Coogan and Brydon, playing versions of themselves, as they tour the north of England, fulfilling a (fictional) assignment on Coogan’s part to pen a piece on Lakeland cuisine for The Guardian. As the pair visit a series of fine-dining establishments and hit the landmarks in between (Bolton Abbey, Coleridge’s house), Coogan negotiates his recent separation with a girlfriend and worries over the declining state of his career, while content family man Brydon engages in phone-sex sessions with his wife that always get derailed due to his decidedly unsexy comic commentary.
But all that’s just filler for the pair’s relentless back and forth. Whether matching impressions of Richard Burton, Al Pacino, or—best of all—Woody Allen, insulting each other’s celebrity status, or, in the film’s comic highlight, riffing on the endless possible permutations of that historical epic chestnut “To bed, gentlemen, for at daybreak we rise,” nearly every bit of dialogue seems designed to yield laughs when taken in isolation. After the 20th such exchange, however, one can be excused for finding the pair more tiresome than amusing.
Lacking the solid grounding of the exploration of the filmmaking process that filled out Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Winterbottom’s previous riff-heavy collaboration with the pair, and with the dramatic impetus provided by Coogan’s anxieties largely perfunctory, the film has nothing to hide behind, its essential slightness out in the open no matter how much pathos it attempts to derive from its leading man’s eventual return home to an empty modernist apartment. (To be fair, Coogan’s worries about his career offer up one of the film’s biggest laughs in a fantasy sequence where Ben Stiller pops up to list all the directors that are lining up to work with the actor, including Tony and Ridley Scott, whom Coogan’s genius has inspired to team up for the first time.)
But far more revealing is a later scene when the leading men visit Coogan’s (presumably fictional) parents, the two still going hard at their shtick. Taking in the pair’s antics, the actor’s father sums up the film in a nutshell. “It’s really exhausting keeping all of this going, isn’t it?” asks the elder Coogan. It certainly is to watch.