“Eh those Brits do things weird.” That was my jocular response when asked about The Trip to Italy – the new movie directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. The film is an edited down version of a BBC series, that also serves as a sequel to 2010’s similarly condensed The Trip. Already this operation sounds so English, but let’s add in a healthy dose of dry humor to top it off. What we end up with is a pretty satisfying mixture.
The Trip featured Coogan and Brydon on a restaurant tour through the north of England as commissioned by the Observer newspaper. The Trip to Italy is much the same, only this time – you got it – the boys are traversing the infamous boot-shaped country. Between (and during) meals, Rob and Steve entertain themselves with dueling impressions and comedy bits, presumably improvised by the self-portraying actors. I want to call it the British version of Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, but it is a little less romantic.
I don’t rememebr a whole lot about The Trip, but I do remember it being mostly focused on Coogan’s relationship difficulties and flailing career aspirations. I also remember leaving only mildly amused. But I love Steve Coogan, so The Trip to Italy was never going to go unwatched by yours truly. The sequel shifts the focus squarely on to Brydon, whose career finally seems to be taking off as his own relationship troubles begin to emerge. The Trip to Italy also feels a lot funnier. There is less downtime, but even that is entertaining. The moments between the two stars are incredibly fun (and your tolerance of their repetitive shtick will determine your enjoyment of the film), but we really get a sense of what’s going on with Steve and Rob in the moments when they are alone at the end of each day.
The Trip to Italy is very much about two unfulfilled men. Coogan – finally in a place where he has accepted his role in show business (though that won’t prevent him from being jealous of any and all of Brydon’s success) – is starting to realize just how important his distant relationship with his son is, while a constant sense of ennui begins to creep its way into Brydon’s seemingly content life. The only time both men seem truly comfortable is when they are poking fun at one another. Late in the movie, in the midst of a jest about the two men living together in Italy as lovers, you can see in Brydon’s performance that such an eventuality might not be so bad.
Winterbottom mostly hangs back and (rightly) allows his actors to control the picture. But his hand can be seen alongside those of cinematographer James Clarke in every shot of the film. Not only does the food look gorgeous, but the Italian vistas look amazing as well. I’m sure it’s almost impossible to make the scenic regions of Italy look bad, but Winterbottom and Clarke always manage to perfectly frame their characters with the landscape that surrounds them.
If there is a weakness to the movie, it comes in the form of the plot. The Trip to Italy really sings when Brydon and Coogan are able to needle each other, but when we are expected to place a lot of interest in Brydon’s personal life it becomes clear that there has been no significant character development up to that point. Still, I applaud Winterbottom for the direction in which he takes that loose narrative, culminating in a satisfyingly ambiguous ending.
That’s another comparison point to the Before series. In fact, The Trip to Italy feels a lot like Before Sunset. And I would have no problem with Winterottom and Coogan and Brydon returning to this little parallel universe in a few years time. These are the kind of depictions of real life that we can identify with. Even if The Trip series isn’t as profound and universal as it’s American equivalent, it still has interesting things to say about friendship and contentment. And that alone makes it worth your time.