How could you appraise Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 movie The Trip? The lightly fictionalized film followed the improvisations of comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon while on a food and inn tour through the north of England, and it was an original comic recipe. The dialogue? Vivacious, tart, startling. The literary garnishes? Apt, provocative. The midlife crisis backstory? Possibly a little underdone, but piquant. Conclusion? Excellent value. More, please.
Now we have The Trip to Italy, a sequel, once again featuring the insecure, self-absorbed Coogan lording his superior fame over the irrepressible, ambitious Brydon as they motor down almost the length of Italy. Along the way, they dine half-interestedly on delicately prepared seafoods and pasta, quaff local wines, engage in celebrity-impression battles, and simultaneously amuse and torment each other.
As with the previous film, no writers are credited for screenplay. Though Coogan and Brydon improvise most of the material, they draw on a trove of material. Additional credits could go to second-generation Romantic poets, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, in whose steps they, occasionally, follow and whose phrases are sprinkled through the film. You could give a partial credits to Shakespeare (misquoted and quoted) and the memoirs of Casanova, and asterisks for the screenwriters of a dozen movies, including The Godfather, The Dark Knight Rises, Beat the Devil, Roman Holiday and Journey to Italy, which Brydon and Coogan quote, riff on and parody.
This time, Brydon’s character initiates the trip, and Coogan, supposedly having wrapped the American television series he landed in the last film, grudgingly agrees. Sequels, he warns, are notoriously inferior. When Brydon mentions The Godfather: Part II, Coogan drily notes that’s the exception everyone cites.
Is The Trip to Italy the second Godfather of comedies, or a retread? Neither, exactly. The concept is no longer fresh, but the scenery on the Amalfi and Sorrento coasts is more transporting, and their convertible Mini Cooper is a more amusing vehicle. Finally, the fact that the only singalong CD for the drive is Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill is an unexpected master stroke.
As with the previous Trip, the new movie is edited from a six-part BBC series, shaped into drama about life’s stages and choices. Coogan, a career-driven letch in the first film, is now resetting his work-family balance, and getting closer to his teenaged son. Brydon, a young father in the first film, is now out for glory, whatever the cost. A chance at a Michael Mann movie in the U.S. has him excited, and while his harried wife at home is weary of his jokes, the lines work on attractive, homesick English tour guide (Rosie Fellner).
The gloominess of ancient ruins and what Byron called “the misery of a man in pursuit of happiness” take a toll. After visiting the beach in Liguria near where Shelley drowned, they contemplate an image of Louis Édouard Fournier’s painting of the poet’s funeral pyre – and speculate his real corpse probably looked more bloated. Later, they consider the death of Batman, as described by Michael Caine. That progresses to the movie’s most brilliant bit, as Coogan and Brydon act out the distress of an assistant director on the set of The Dark Knight Rises, trying to persuade Tom Hardy and Christian Bale to sound intelligible.
The ruins of Pompeii provide further meditations on life’s brevity, and an opportunity for Brydon to trot out his “small man trapped in a box” ventriloquism routine with a petrified mummy in a display case. Coogan looks queasy, but he gets his turn in the skull-filled Napoli catacombs, directing Hamlet’s speech to Brydon: “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?”
Yes, these friends play rough and you wouldn’t want to compete at their table, but through Winterbottom’s funny and slyly serious film, you can experience their creativity from a seat nearby.