Michael Winterbottom's The Trip and its new sequel, The Trip to Italy, test the idea that vacation comedies necessarily lead to empty film experiences. Based on a six-part British TV series, the films send fictionalized versions of friends Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon to gourmet restaurants against lovely landscapes. In 2011 they ate their way across the North of England, while the sequel sends them to the likes of Rome, Capri, and Naples.
The Trip to Italy, like its predecessor, can be viewed as essentially a travelogue, with brochure-pretty pictures and comedic interludes. Primarily known for English TV comedy, Coogan and Brydon swap joking insults and movie star impressions, and found some viral fame for their dueling Michael Caines. Look a little closer and you may find an almost subliminal inquiry into the nature of being an artist.
The Trip painted Coogan as a prickly individual, a womanizer prone to bully the less pretentious, happily married Brydon. Italy finds them still competitive as performers — if Coogan can't one-up Brydon, he'll take the piss out of his efforts, and vice versa. But Italy takes the edge off Coogan, finding him more mellowed and mature in his relationships with women. Largely unknown in the U.S. outside his work with Coogan, Brydon emerges as the more loose cannon here, with his marriage and acting career both at tipping points.
For the new trip, which is taken under the justification of writing an article, Coogan and Brydon follow in the footsteps of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. The funnymen wonder how they measure up to the romantic poets as artists, and in a telling detail, Brydon seems unable to quote verses in his own voice, and instead lapses into Richard Burton or Hugh Grant. Byron was a famous libertine, and happily married Brydon faces temptation from a deckhand on a luxury sailboat.
Italy reprises the other film's device of crosscutting between chefs at work, their exquisitely plated dishes, and Coogan and Brydon riffing on pop culture in the dining rooms. The chefs could be the true artists, creating things of beauty that provide vital sustenance. Comedy seems like a less substantial art form, with movie star impressions proving reactive by their very nature.
When Coogan and Brydon trot out their Michael Caine or James Bond shtick, it feels like self-conscious encores to the previous films, and their Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando impressions border on hacky. But A Trip to Italy is still filled with amusing moments, particularly Brydon doing his signature "small man in a box" routine while at a museum in Pompeii. The two can alternate between Hamlet and Dirty Harry without missing a beat, and enjoy wry puns. Coogan remarks of a comely hotel employee, "She's got a lovely gait." Brydon: "Probably padlocked."
When not funny or revelatory, A Trip to Italy has dull stretches, but at times, Coogan and Brydon's lack of epiphanies in splendid locations simply suggests their short-sightedness and self-obsession. At the same time, it's nice to see a film touch on themes like midlife crises or estranged relationships with children without belaboring the usual screenplay beats of set-up and resolution. If you want a movie with huge laughs and high drama, A Trip to Italy is definitely not the getaway for you, but Coogan and Brydon still make for good company.
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