A delightful excursion that one-ups its predecessor with better storytelling and the return of the dueling Caines.
The Trip to Italy
What an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Two actors are being paid to eat at the most lavish fine dining restaurants in Italy, tracing the Amalfi coast in a MINI Cooper and soaking up the gorgeous sun-drenched scenery. It’s a glorious thing. A wondrous thing. And the two actors fortunate enough to have this gift bestowed upon them? Prominent English funnymen Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. “You know what would make this perfect now? Michael Buble” Brydon says to Coogan, leaning back in his chair as they enjoy a delicious breakfast by the sea. “Where do you stand on Michael Buble?” Brydon asks.
Coogan refuses to allow the stunning vistas distract his superior wit and comic timing, replying dryly, “On his windpipe.”
Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy repeats the formula of its 2011 predecessor, The Trip, a condensed film version of a U.K. miniseries, but makes a more refined film with the docu-narrative sequel. Coogan and Brydon again play themselves, entertaining and aggravating each other with improvised jokes and dead-on impressions as they share six meals over the course of a week. Brydon’s been hired again by the Observer to write about immaculate restaurants (he and Coogan’s palates are, by their own admission, woefully unrefined, making them comically unqualified for the gig), but this time all around beautiful Italy as opposed to the English countryside establishments of The Trip.
The larger source of humor here (which is much more pronounced in this film than the first) is that, despite the fact that these two friends are visiting places that are the definition of “heaven on earth”, they can’t for the life of them turn off the comedy button in their brains. While visiting a museum at Mount Vesuvius, they stop at a glass case housing a fossil of a man whose death pose is frozen forever by the magma that swallowed him when the volcano last erupted. It’s haunting. Coogan’s floored. “I wonder if anyone cried for him?” But you can see the gears turning in Brydon’s head. As a comic, his most famous bit is one in which he manipulates his voice to sound like a “small man in a box”. (That’s the name of the bit, of course.) He can’t resist. He puts on the little voice and goes to work: “I can see the volcano erupting and I AM PETRIFIED!”
A large part of what made the first movie a success were the duo’s unbelievably accurate impressions, particularly of Michael Caine. The impressions on display here are just as funny here (Sir Michael does indeed return, and Brydon does a stunning Al Pacino), if not more so. Coogan and Brydon are at the top of their game as celeb chameleons, not question. But the impressions don’t steal the show as they did in The Trip because the narrative elements of the film are so improved this time around. Brydon’s got a wife and baby back home in England, but he’s just been offered a role in an American gangster movie. On the phone, his wife sounds too preoccupied with the baby to talk to him for more than a couple minutes, and he’s hooked up with a cute, young girl who’s quite taken with him. It’s subtle stuff, and there’s just enough of it to keep the locomotion of the story moving steadily forward.
In between eating seared scallops and hearty pasta, the duelling Caines, and singing along (poorly) to Alanis Morissette (the car radio’s busted and it’s their only CD), the actors occasionally ruminate about mortality, in moments that feel genuinely tender and melancholy. While standing by the water they spot some young, prett girls. “It’s funny, isn’t it? Women that age just look straight through us.” The theme of the trip itself (besides the food, of course) revolves around Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, whose lives inform many of their pit-stops.
Is Winterbottom’s series merely an excuse to let Coogan and Brydon riff with each other while they visit beautiful places, stay in extravagant hotels, and dine like kings? Well yeah, it sort of is. But there’s little wrong with that when what he puts on screen is so entertaining and even riveting at times. In fact, Winterbottom’s strength is that he’s embraced the simplicity of the project, and doesn’t try to mess with the formula too much. For many of us, listening to the actors have impression-offs could keep us easily entertained for a 108 minutes, but Winterbottom throws in a bit of narrative and visual finesse to add some polish and make The Trip to Italy a memorable, delightful excursion.