“I think anyone over 40 who amuses themselves by doing impressions has to take a long, hard look in the mirror.” —Steve Coogan, The Trip
If Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip film series is a story about a pair of men constantly flailing to prove their masculinity to one another and themselves, then the celebrity impression is their ultimate currency of manhood. As U.K. funnymen Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan eat their way through a rotation of heart-stoppingly gorgeous countrysides — first the north of England, then Italy, and in the latest installment out Friday, the Spanish coast — they’re locked in a permanent state of one-upsmanship, and imitation is the sincerest form of dominance. They attempt to riff one another into submission, both henpecking every minute detail of the other’s dead-on Bond routine or Mick Jagger bit. While their female companions roll their eyes, the pair of fatuous boobs duel in the comedic equivalent of a dick-measuring competition.
On the occasion of The Trip to Spain’s completion of this stellar trilogy, Vulture has undertaken the vital and solemn work of compiling and ranking the many impressions contained within the series. From Godfather alumni to esteemed British thespians, here’s the full repertoire of the Brydon-Coogan brain trust:
18. Michael Parkinson
Brydon only does this esteemed broadcast journalist and talk-show host for a brief moment before abandoning the bit, and for good reason. Forget that Parkinson never achieved the household-name status among Americans that he enjoys with his British countrymen. (We’ve got no real American equivalent, which says something troubling about the state of a national late-night culture that gave us Carpool Karaoke.) But the cornerstone of these bits is the ability to instantly recognize what a personality sounds like, and if a subject doesn’t have such a memorable tone of voice, you’re sunk from the start.
17. Gore Vidal
William F. Buckley may be the more fun character to lampoon (see Michael Sheen’s chain-smoking, sweaty, perpetually horny stand-in in Seven Days in Hell) but Vidal, his rival in public ideology, has a refined, mannered way about him that’s all too easily mocked. Putting on an intellectual air is as easy as turning your nose slightly upward, but as ever, Brydon cuts to the man behind the tics. Truly mastering the American accent is an accomplishment that requires Zen-like focus, reliant more on absence and not doing than presence and doing. Flipping into it with no trouble speaks to Brydon’s mastery of his craft.
16. Humphrey Bogart
It’s all but impossible to say the words “I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship” and not slip into Bogie’s old-timey Nu-Yawk intonation. Brydon only does one blessed line from the screen idol of yore, and yet that’s all that’s needed, so powerful is Bogart’s cultural shorthand.
15. Anthony Hopkins
A Hannibal Lecter bit is not an Anthony Hopkins bit. There is no mention of fava beans at this dinner table, no exaggerated slurping noises, and no “Hello, Clarice.” In his native U.K., Hopkins isn’t as defined by his Silence of the Lambs role, and Brydon conveys as much with his gentle, firm imitation. Hopkins has a tinny, commanding voice; he’s his truest self in The Lion in Winter, evincing regal composure until his temper gets the better of him. Brydon goes into Hopkins mode while reading a restaurant review, elevating the adjective-heavy copy to the register of a soliloquy to the heavens.
14. John Hurt
The most pleasing impressions are the ones you didn’t even think could be done; a good Thomas Haden Church will always outclass another tired William Shatner. Cult-cinema fixture John Hurt wouldn’t seem like an easy target, but Brydon proves otherwise with his arch, aerated sighs. It’s a minor entry to this sprawling canon, yes, though it’s valuable as proof of Brydon’s skill for finding new comic ground to till.
13. Richard Burton
The heir apparent to Laurence Olivier, a profligate boozer with a taste for the high life, Richard Burton was a wastrel and a great man in one. The committed compartmentalizer Brydon uses Burton as a theatrical mask, slipping into the booming, commanding voice when he has to lend some heft to the words of Samuel Coleridge. Not since Xanadu (the disco musical) has the word “Xanadu” (the mythic stronghold of Kubla Khan) been so heavily freighted with drama.
12. Robert De Niro
As the unfunnier masses of Twitter users have so helpfully illustrated, a baseline Robert De Niro amounts to little more than squinting and mashing your mouth into an “eh, not bad” half-frown. Coogan and Brydon go several miles further, not just by tapping into the sinus-y menace in the actor’s voice, but by remaining faithful to his streams of creative obscenity. (Coogan threatens to rip off a certain body part and perform a certain bodily process down the resultant hole.) And god bless their souls, neither man even thinks about uttering the words “You talkin’ to me?”
11. Ian McKellen
Brydon gives his take on the treasure of screen and stage while reciting a Wordsworth poem at an aged cemetery in Bolton. Coogan roasts him for his inability to deliver a serious poem using his own voice, and while his charges of lacking range may stick, Brydon’s retort that he wanted to choose a persona that could bring gravitas to the material proves valid as well. McKellen’s got a thunderous, room-rilling voice, the sort that can make a guy who wears a bucket on his head to augment his magical magnet superpowers sound like a Shakespearean figure of tragedy.
10. Woody Allen
It is a truth universally acknowledged that all Jewish men over the age of 16 have a killer Woody Allen impression in their back pocket at all times. But Coogan and Brydon prove that goys can hang with the best of them, expertly capturing the Woodster’s congested New York nebbish-ese. The keys to the perfect Woody Allen impression: a touch of well-placed stammering, the air of neurotic hopelessness, the glottal strangulation that only a boyhood spent in synagogue can provide. Brydon and Coogan manage a mock Woody that would fit in at any college-improv-team house party, that most common habitat of the amateur Woody Allen impression.
9. Roger Moore
The brilliance of the Roger Moore impression is not in its accuracy, but its commitment. Both men hit the rich, full baritone of the former 007 perfectly, but insist on driving the joke through to the point of exhaustion, and then pushing it a little further, and then defibrillating it back to life and killing it again. Best realized in The Trip to Spain, Moore dovetails with jokes about the Moors, and the adage that “less is more” until the groans from the ladies present turn into them completely checking out of the situation. In this instance, more Moore is more.
8. Dustin Hoffman
The first Dustin Hoffman impression is triggered as the result of a mix-up between the wish to work with “auteur” directors and “autistic” directors, prompting Brydon to do a lethal Rain Man. There’s a noticeable difference between the affected in-character Hoffman from that scene and the straight-up Hoffman that Brydon does a few scenes later; both men share the tight, pursed mouth and airy, nasal delivery, but the cadence of Rain Man–Hoffman’s speech has a tripping, uneven quality, as in the film. It’s a small detail, but one that speaks to the studied attention of the actor’s schtick all the same.
7. Mick Jagger
The particulars of the Mick Jagger impression are goofy enough to have sustained an entire SNL sketch: You sort of make a duck face but open your mouth, place your wrists akimbo on your hips, and preen around with a peacockish swagger. Finger-wagging is encouraged. As Coogan generously shows, the double-clap doesn’t hurt, either. The men pop into the Rolling Stones front man’s flamboyant twang while playacting the Bard, filtering the musty dialogue through Jagger’s randy, rock-and-roll strut. The juxtaposition really brings out the baser qualities of Shakespeare’s writing — Jagger would’ve been a groundling.
6. Marlon Brando
Everyone knows that the success of a Marlon Brando routine depends entirely on one’s ability to make their mouth sound full, but full of something lumpy, like porridge. (Brando reputedly stuffed his cheeks with cotton balls to get Don Corleone’s signature mumble in The Godfather.) Brydon can reproduce the desired sound effect all on his own, but Coogan decides to go the direct route and jam wads of bread right in his piehole. Little bits of starchy shrapnel fly out of his mouth like buckshot, but he gets the job done and then some.
5. Sean Connery
Of the many incarnations of James Bond that Coogan and Brydon affectionately parody, none matches the roguish charm of Scotland’s national treasure. The brogue is as significant a component of Connery’s icon status as the tuxedo or smirk — curl the tongue back, flatten all the “s” sounds into a masculine shushing, arch the eyebrow for good measure. More than that, the elevated stature of Connery captures a certain nobility that Brydon and Coogan like to imagine in their work. They consistently gravitate toward the board-treaders, actors with a theatrical, dignified air. Connery shows just how seriously they take the work of being silly.
4. Hugh Grant
Brydon’s channeling of Britain’s most rakishly handsome funnyman stands out by virtue of its intent rather than the specifics of the performance. Brydon doesn’t do Grant while shooting the bull with Coogan, but rather while he’s on the phone with his patient, dutiful wife who’s back at home with the kids. The Love Actually star is his spouse’s favorite film idol, and so Brydon will do a little boyish “oh, just noticed you there” stutter to make her giggle. It’s a disarmingly sweet moment in a franchise that speaks belittling sarcasm like a native tongue, and a succinct way to communicate how the pair might have fallen in love in the first place.
3. Al Pacino
There are two Al Pacinos: the actor who gave performances of fearsome, reined-in power during the ’70s, and the over-the-top madman behind his cokey, go-for-broke stretch of ’90s roles. (See “SHE GOTTA GREAT ASS” in your index of Great Actorly Freakouts.) Unsurprisingly, Brydon and Coogan favor that second one, with his bugged-out eyes and jagged rhythms of speech. The Al Pacino impression is the thinking man’s Nic Cage impression, a measured approximation of unmeasured craziness, an attempt to make sense of hoo-AH. Of course it’s a natural part of a comedy bit — Pacino was always angling for laughs, in on the joke every step of the way.
2. David Bowie
Coogan and Brydon trade Bowies over a tasting menu in Spain, just one short year after the musical trailblazer returned to the cosmos from whence he came. Their absurd imagining of Bowie’s decision to follow Brydon on Twitter shortly before his death leads to the single greatest laugh of the film, as Coogan flips from a high, reedy voice for “Shall I follow Rob Brydon?” to a weathered, wearier tone for “Or shall I follow Rob Brydon in my later years?” In a film obsessed with aging, death, and the legacy we leave behind, however, the impression takes on an unexpected tinge of sadness. At the end of his road, what does a man have? A little blue check mark?
1. Michael Caine
If Coogan and Brydon are the Da Vinci of pretending to be famous people, then this is their Sistine Chapel. They bust out the Michael Caine at least once in each movie, forever refining the tiniest flourishes of the Cockney dialect to convey the actor’s working-class, street-bred background. The two men aren’t satisfied with merely aping Caine’s sound, either. They’ve got to note the evolution of his voice down an octave over the years, trace it back to a history of cigars and brandy, make the crucial distinction between Caine at rest and Caine in emotional mode. It’s a surprisingly thought-through bit, opened by Brydon taking umbrage at Coogan’s suggestion that a Caine impression is as simple as throwing on an East London steel-and-gravel-style of speech. Some may consider it to be a low form of humor, but a professional-level impersonation depends on attention to detail, specificity, and a physical elasticity that would make Jim Carrey jealous. Maybe it’s a dumb one, but hey, it’s an art form all the same.