If you haven’t seen Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 “The Trip,” stop everything right this second and watch it (hint: it’s on Netflix.) Initiated as a BBC television show, UK viewers have already been put in stitches by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s antics therein. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, not unlike John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich,” while traveling the English countryside reviewing restaurants for UK’s The Observer, the pair’s carrying on is similar to a fond memory of two instinctively funny acquaintances you’re not sure you’ll ever meet again. Luckily, Steve and Rob reunite for “The Trip To Italy,”and the effect amounts to déjà-vu, with the added bonus of seeing the resplendent Italian coast.
After the surprising success of his first restaurant reviews for The Observer, Steve is now asked to visit six restaurants in six different Italian coastal cities, starting in Liguria and ending in Capri. He asks his friend Rob to join him, and the latter jumps at the opportunity to take a vacation from his life of family and relative fame. The two rent a Mini and start the road trip, with musical accompaniment provided by Alanis Morisette’s 1995 classic Jagged Little Pill. It’s not long before the Michael Caine impersonations set in, updated to reference “The Dark Knight Rises,” followed by a discussion on the hardships of understanding Tom Hardy’s Bane.
Along the way, they meet their guide Lucy (Rosie Fellner), who helps them sail for part of their trip and who falls for Rob’s colloquial charm and spot-on Hugh Grant impression. This only complicates matters for Rob, who is increasingly confronted by the distance he feels from his wife and a desire to detach from fatherhood. Meanwhile, Steve takes a more settled approach to his personal tribulations; his primary concern is reconnecting with the son he never gets to see. But don’t be fooled into thinking “The Trip To Italy” veers too far into dramatic territory; nothing could be further from the truth. These private moments end up augmenting the laughs, making the whole experience feel that much more organic.
If there was ever any doubt that Coogan and Brydon reside somewhere in the upper echelons of British comedy, “The Trip To Italy” should put that debate to rest forever. You haven’t seen on-screen chemistry until you’ve seen these two compete, constantly busting each other’s balls on fame, fortune, family life and their own looks. The fictionalized Coogan and Brydon are equally vain and insecure peas in a pod whether they’d ever admit it or not, and the biggest reason why “The Trip To Italy” works so effortlessly (much like its predecessor). Their exchanges will immerse you quicker than any flying 3D projectiles from semi-brainless blockbusters. Look out for Rob explaining how affable he is, the peculiarity of pronouncing the word kumquat, and Steve’s barely disguised jealousy over Rob’s offer to star in the new Michael Mann film. Needless to say, we’d pay a fortune to see that movie.
This must have been the easiest directing job Michael Winterbottom ever had, with the first series probably a close second. Not only can he just let the camera roll on Coogan and Brydon (two actors he’s worked with plenty of times previously), but this time around he’s traveling along the Italian coastline, so it’s easy to make the exterior shots gorgeous. Still, props must go to his regular DP James Clarke who does fantastic work, whether it’s in the busy Italian kitchens or on the gently ebbing coastline. In lesser hands, this picture could have easily been over-cooked or under-boiled, but with Winterbottom’s screenplay anchoring the humor with real-life tribulations, “The Trip To Italy” is as balanced as its meals are delicious. And the meals look positively scrumptious, and will be a real treat for foodies.
It’s quite simple, really. If you enjoyed the first trip, there is no reason you won’t enjoy the second. It’s familiar enough with its brand of improvisational humor, but just different enough (apart from the location) to stretch out the expiry date. For example, Steve’s newfound maturity is tested when an old flame appears from ‘The Trip,’ and Rob’s conundrum over Lucy isn’t just swept under the rug of movie magic. On top of this carefully balanced tone, it feels like the cultural and literary references come even thicker and faster the second time around. By the time the curtains draw to a bittersweet close, you’ll walk out feeling rejuvenated, satisfied, well replenished in humor and culture, and already planning your own trip to Italy. [A]