TERRY GROSS, host:
Last year, the English newspaper The Observer asked comedian Steve Coogan to travel in the English countryside and review six acclaimed restaurants. Coogan invited along his friend Rob Brydon, also a comic. Because both men are stars in Britain and have a cult following in the U.S., their journey was turned into a six-part BBC series directed by Michael Winterbottom. That series has been edited into a feature film called "The Trip."
Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has seen it and says it not only made him laugh out loud but got him thinking about the way movies have changed.
JOHN POWERS: A few nights ago, I put on Warner Home Video's new Blu-ray of one of my favorite adventure films, "The Man Who Would Be King." Based on a story by Kipling, this 1975 tale stars Michael Caine and Sean Connery as two roguish British soldiers who scam their way into taking over the country of Kafiristan. It's a terrific movie, and as it unfolded, I was struck that Caine and Connery have been part of my life since I was a kid. I could recognize their voices in my sleep.
I'm hardly the only one. I was reminded of this when I saw "The Trip," a hilarious new road movie starring two brilliant comics. One is Welshman Rob Brydon, whose vocal trick called "Small Man in a Box" is itself worth the price of admission. The other is Steve Coogan, an Englishman best known here for minor roles in movies like "Tropic Thunder" but worshipped in Britain for creating Alan Partridge, an inept talk-show host who's the hero of some of the funniest TV shows of all time.
"The Trip" has no plot. It's just Coogan and Bryden driving around northern England eating at posh restaurants, mocking foodie-ism and trying to one-up each other. Nowhere are they more competitive than in their dueling impersonations of the British actors they grew up with -Caine and Connery. Here, Bryden does the aging Caine and Coogan tries to top him.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Trip")
Mr. ROB BRYDEN (Comedian): Right so, Michael Caine's voice now in the "Batman" movies and in "Harry Brown." I can't go fast because Michael Caine talks very, very slowly.
Mr. STEVE COOGAN (Comedian): Well, this is how Michael Caine speaks. Michael Caine speaks through his nose like that. He gets very, very specific. It's very like that. When he gets loudly, he gets very loud indeed. It gets very specific. It's not quite nasal enough the way you're doing it. All right. You're not doing it the way he speaks. You're not doing it with the kind of (unintelligible) broken voice when he gets very emotional. When he gets very emotional indeed. She was only 16 years old. She was only 16 you're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off. That's Michael Caine.
POWERS: Now, in a way, "The Trip" is terribly up to date. In having Coogan and Bryden play heightened versions of themselves, it works the same fiction-versus-reality turf as the books of W.G. Sebald or shows like "Jersey Shore." Yet what makes the movie a blast could hardly be more old-fashioned. "The Trip" harks back to when movies, still not far removed from vaudeville, showcased stars who were able to do acts -Chaplin and Keaton's immaculately tooled slapstick, Astaire and Rogers' ethereal gliding, or poor doomed Judy Garland singing audiences over the rainbow.
Of course mimicry is not the world's most exalted talent, but I would cheerfully spend a whole night watching Bryden and Coogan do their warring James Bonds. This isn't simply because I am myself the world's worst mimic. I once reduced my sister Becky to hysterics with my hapless Howard Cosell, perhaps the all-time easiest person to impersonate. It's because good mimicry is kissed with the uncanny. Whether it's Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin or Jimmy Fallon's Neil Young, we hear the right voice coming from the wrong body. And in the process, we're shown something revelatory about the person being mimicked.
"The Trip" got me thinking about which of today's movie voices I could instantly hear in my mind's ear - Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman. Which is to say, old guys, like Connery and Caine. As for the young ones, can you hear Brad Pitt's voice right now, or Angelina Jolie's? This year's Oscar winner, Natalie Portman, is a superb actress, but I can't remember what she sounds like, as I can with Bette Davis, Lucille Ball or Marilyn Monroe.
Some of this is because movie stardom has changed. Hollywood once promoted stars whose selling point was a persona, an individualized, even eccentric style that played to working-class adults. Such style meant having trademark voices, accents and locutions that instantly called up a whole universe of feeling, from Mae West's lewd growl to Jimmy Shtewart's(ph) homeshpun(ph) decency. I told you I was a terrible mimic. In contrast, today's stars either work in movies for middle-class teens - where conformity is largely the rule - or take pride in being chameleons. Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep don't want to sound like themselves.
That said, the major reason I can imagine Katharine Hepburn's voice but not, say, Katherine Heigl's, is simple longevity. Today's stars have shorter shelf lives - just ask Kevin Costner still, I can well imagine that 25 years from now there will be another movie in which comics sit around the table and swap their impressions of grizzled old stars like George Clooney, Denzel Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio. And if there is, I can promise you one thing: I'll pay to see it.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and vogue.com. You can see clips from "The Trip" on our website, freshair.npr.org.