Michael Winterbottom's 2011 film "The Trip" pulled off a unique hybrid—part road movie, part bromance and travel show—from an absurdly simple formula. The feature film, edited down from a six-hour BBC sitcom of the same name, reunited the stars of Winterbottom's 2005 film "Tristram and Shady: A Cock and Bull Story," Steve Coogan ("Philomena") and Rob Brydon ("Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels") under the premise that Coogan had invited Brydon on a road trip to review restaurants in the Lake District for The Observer.
Their routine never varied. Coogan and Brydon ordered high-concept dishes (like duckfat lollies) and competed for the best Michael Caine impersonations (among others) over lunch, visited the haunts of Coleridge and Wordsworth in the afternoons, and retired to separate rooms at posh inns at night. Late in the day, Brydon anxiously phoned his wife, a young mother, while Coogan sought the nearest moody cliff for cell phone reception to call his disinterested American girlfriend or pursue empty conquests with the female staff. Winterbottom served up a winning combination of comedy for lunch, a spot of English literary history at teatime, and a nice helping of melancholy après-dinner.
While these ingredients felt fresh the first time around, they suffer from repetition in Winterbottom's second installment, "The Trip to Italy." Miraculous circumstances reunite the odd couple for a routine nearly identical to the first, except this time Brydon and Coogan swap their domestic holiday for a Grand Tour of Italy. For the Italian edition, The Observer enlists Brydon to pen a series of restaurant reviews and recruit his surly companion (at the last film's end, Coogan left the country for a television gig in Los Angeles, which dumped all the writing responsibilities on Brydon). Back in England once his American series has been passed over for a third season, Coogan agrees to accompany his friend on a trek from Liguria to Capri to follow in the footsteps of the Romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley.
"We're not going to be doing impersonations? Because we talked about that," Coogan says at the beginning of their voyage, only to find Brydon has chosen to rent a Mini Cooper to navigate the winding Italian roads, which brings the Michael Caine impersonations out again, this time hailing from his "The Italian Job" period. Before long, Coogan and Brydon are competing to nail the line, "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off." Brydon's impressions still win the day, but Coogan again excels in subtler pitches.
On a lovely sunlit piazza overlooking the Mediterranean, Coogan only has eyes for the womenfolk, musing on midlife, "Now, the smile they give you is the one they give to a benevolent uncle." While "The Trip to Italy" offers all the pleasures of a posh holiday accompanied by two of the most inventive comedians today, the improvisation here lacks the total unexpectedness that the first enjoyed. Even the Michael Caine bit grows, as redundant as the dishes Winterbottom dutifully shows prepared and served—all pasti, all the time.
Winterbottom's Italian riff on "The Trip" turns the tables on the characters with a middling sort of conviction. Brydon essentially assumes Coogan's mantle of most conflicted character, flirting with the beautiful sailor Lucy (Rosie Fellner, "Face of an Angel") who falls for his Hugh Grant when his wife doesn't in their short-lived phone conversations. It's Brydon corresponding with his agent this time, eager for a part in a Michael Mann film that would allow him to play against type and leave the country for L.A.'s sunnier shores. The reasons and feelings behind Brydon's infidelity and mobster film aspirations manifest only in solitary monologues filled with the impressions that outstayed their welcome in the lunch scenes. It's no surprise that the film has put on a few extra pounds, its pacing lumbering through routine food porn when Brydon's motivations merit further screen time.
Winterbottom nevertheless serves up the journey with exquisite presentation, aided by James Clarke's cinematography, which caresses the curves of the Amalfi Coast. It's an homage to the photography of Italian precursors "Roman Holiday," "Beat The Devil," and "Le Mépris," whose locations surface in the tour just as often as the Shelley and Byron sites.
The comedians' slavish tour of the English poets' wanderings in "The Trip" always simmered with their anxiety over creating art that would be remembered. Would Brydon’s Small Man in a Box endure (it had an iPhone app) — or Coogan’s five BAFTAs? But in "The Trip to Italy," death dominates the conversation at greater length. It's a midlife crisis narrative, but one that never fully explains Brydon's sudden interest in the hedonist pursuits that previously curbed Coogan's acknowledgement of old age. This installment leaves one hungry for the first movie's nighttime aperitif: Each character sated their loneliness in separate rooms, and separate ways.
Criticwire Grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? IFC Films will distribute "The Trip to Italy," which stands a good chance of matching the $2 million gross of the first movie due to its cult appeal, which has grown since it appeared on Netflix. However, Coogan and Brydon have limited appeal in the U.S., and mixed word of mouth might make it hard for lightning to strike twice with same impact.