'The Trip to Italy'
Back in 2010, director Michael Winterbottom and the brilliant British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon drove around to a handful of restaurants in England with a loose outline of a screenplay and improvised some cinematic gold in ‘The Trip’. Four years later, they’ve done it again, this time in Italy. Though released in England as a TV series, ‘The Trip’ plays in North America as shortened feature films, but this is best thought of as a second season rather than a sequel. It’s more of the same and not in a bad way.
‘The Trip to Italy’ doesn’t really have much of a plot, but that’s not exactly the point. Once again, real life buddies and world-class bickerers Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon head out on a road trip to review a few restaurants, deliver a mountain of banter and trade off a series of impressions. In between, Coogan struggles to get over his failed TV show and reconnect with his son, while Brydon guiltily engages in an affair between phone calls from his distracted wife and lands a role in a Michael Mann film. These are more events to structure marathon improvisations around than anything else. If the movie is “about” anything, it’s the frustrations of growing older and the push/pull of love/mockery that defines male friendships. Yet, even pulling these loose thematic links to the surface seems to be beside the point. That the film has themes and social observations is probably just because Coogan, Brydon and Winterbottom can’t help themselves. They’re all artists with a delightfully cynical point of view that tends to flavor their work even when they strive for little more than a delightful lark.
Michael Winterbottom is a curious director who cranks out projects at an insane rate and seems to be determined to have a go at every conceivable genre simply to see if he can pull it off. With ‘The Trip’ movies, the director abandons his usual interests in film style and structure to simply showcase two prime comedy talents and let them fly. Sure, the Italian settings are beautiful and Winterbottom employs some lush tourist-guide cinematography, but he’s smart enough to know that’s merely a flavor in this meal and far from the main course. Instead, the focus of ‘The Trip to Italy’ is the Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan show, as it should be. The duo proved to be a perfect comedy team last time and nothing has changed with this outing. At the first meal, they acknowledge that Brydon rented a Mini Cooper to drive around Italy purely to make ‘Italian Job’ references, and with that they dive into another Michael Caine impression war, like the one that became a minor viral video hit after the last movie. Impressions come fast and thick after that. Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, Hugh Grant, and countless others all get a go, and it’s hilarious to see the duo trade off brilliant rounds of mimickery between blasts of snide British mockery. Winterbottom even joins in at one point to stage a hilarious reconstruction of ‘The Godfather Part II’ starring the duo, and it’s an undeniable highlight for film snobs.
Ultimately, anyone’s enjoyment of ‘The Trip’ will come down to his or her opinion of the two leads. Love Coogan and Brydon and you’ll be in nirvana for 90 minutes. But if you feel even indifferent about them, you’ll question whether this even counts as a movie. After all, it’s not really. Both ‘Trip’ pictures were filmed as 6-part TV series for the BBC before being chopped down to 90 minutes for theatrical release elsewhere. It was a pretty brilliant commercial decision that ensured a wonderful show that would never be seen outside of the UK got some well-deserved international attention. However, it has to be said that the transition from screen to film doesn’t go quite as smoothly this time. Passages can feel awkwardly choppy in an attempt to get the running time down, and the film doesn’t really have an ending as much as it has a light set-up for the next film/series.
Still, these complaints are minor piddles at best and boneheaded nit-pickery at worst. The movie is hilarious and poignant with central performances so good that audiences can be forgiven for forgetting that they’re even watching acting. In particular, it’s important to stack the movie up against the tradition of comedy sequels, which as a general rule are pitiful attempts to recreate a familiar formula. In an amusing bit of meta-comedy, Coogan makes a connection between the film and a difficult second album in one of the first scenes, and then the movie never falls into those traps. While it certainly would have been possible to mess things up, the formula of putting Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon across from each other at a dinner table and letting them rip was too good to fail. Hopefully the boys take another trip soon, because watching this sequel felt like catching up with old friends. It would be a shame to part ways permanently when we’re all getting along so well.