Review: THE TRIP TO ITALY

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return, eating and bickering their way down the Italian coast on another loosely-fictionalized holiday.

If, and that’s a big If, 200 years from now either of us are remembered…it would probably be me.

–Coogan

This all began in 2005, when director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) set about adapting the “unfilmable” novel Tristram Shandy as an amorphous, extremely meta exercise about filming the Tristram Shandy adaptation. It starred Steve Coogan as an exaggerated version of himself: a pompous, vain television star who nevertheless was deeply insecure about his status, and wished to break out of the box his Alan Partridge show (in which he played a pompous, vain, yet insecure talk show host) had put him in. If you made it all the way through that sentence, than you might enjoy Tristram Shandy, a film that is brilliant in spots and overindulgent in others. But one of the highlights was “Coogan’s” relationship with “Rob Brydon,” an obnoxious comic on the rise, and skilled impressionist — though not as skilled as he believes he is.

The two played off each other so well in this metafiction that Winterbottom brought them back together for 2010’s The Trip, in which, having been asked by The Observer to review the finest restaurants in the English countryside, Coogan brings along best friend/eternal aggravator Brydon. You’ve probably seen the highlight of the film (which was originally a televised miniseries on BBC, and condensed into a feature), in which the two hilariously duel via Michael Caine impressions. The film had no plot to speak of, really, but it was consistently funny, as the melancholy Coogan and inexhaustible Brydon seemed to crave each other’s company as much as they seemed to loathe it. (Of course, much more loathing came from Coogan’s side; Brydon always has the air of a man who’s just happy to have been invited.)

I’m pleased to report that The Trip to Italy is mostly more of the same; this time it is Brydon who is asked to journey to the continent, and Coogan, whose show has just been cancelled, grumpily tags along. Brydon is needy and clever enough to have called Coogan’s agent first, the better to catch Coogan in a lie in case he claims to be too busy to go, and after some opening meta-jabs about the sequel never being as good, they’re off to Italy. Like before, the sequence with the most viral potential comes at the pair’s first stop in Liguria, as they not only bring back impressions of Michael Caine but the entire cast of The Dark Knight Rises, culminating in a blisteringly funny exchange where Coogan poses as a hapless AD trying to get “Christian Bale” and “Tom Hardy” to speak more intelligibly.

The best moments in the film have a similarly tossed off, improvisational air, and the rapport between the real Coogan and Brydon has never been stronger. But The Trip to Italy is overall less patchwork and more cinematic than its predecessor, as the long stretches of banter between the two are more frequently broken up with half-hearted stabs at plot. They attempt to retrace the steps of the great poets Byron and Shelley, journeying through Tuscany, Rome, down the Amalfi Coast, and concluding in Capri. They enjoy a fancy lunch and dinner at every stop, while taking in the breathtaking Italian vistas. (The cinematography, from Winterbottom’s frequent DP James Clarke, is just stunning. This is a gorgeous movie, warm and colorful, capturing the coastlines and rolling hills in a way that will have you immediately looking up ticket prices.)

In between the eating, the driving (while Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill plays) and the impersonations (Pacino, de Niro, all the James Bonds, and on and on), Winterbottom tries to sketch out character arcs for the pair, but it feels unnatural and largely unnecessary. It’s hard to get invested in the faux-drama — Coogan struggles to connect with his “son” over Skype, while Brydon has an affair with a pretty tour guide — because the line between the the real men and their affectations has been so thoroughly blurred. Their dinner conversations together, as they begin to challenge and open up to each other in unexpected ways, are ultimately more satisfying than anything that happens when they are separate.

It’s not that neither is capable of carrying his own story, but that Winterbottom seems to be going through the motions to fill time. (More than halfway through, when the director inexplicably cuts to the person on the other end of a phone conversation, any feeling of authenticity is shattered. I seriously do not understand this choice.) While in Italy, Brydon is offered a role in an upcoming Michael Mann film, and Coogan’s jealousy is palpable, but it is never addressed and doesn’t lead anywhere. Perhaps these subplots played better within the television series, when they were given a little more space to breathe — that said, there’s something profound and sad about seeing a flop-sweating Brydon alone in his hotel room, practicing his lines in voices that aren’t even his own.

The film is reinvigorated when they visit Pompeii, and Brydon finally has an opportunity to deploy his famous “Small Man in a Box” act: Coogan is utterly unmoved, but at dinner, when Brydon plays against him as an unctuous talk show host, Coogan breaks out into genuine laughter for the first time in the entire film. Whether it’s the length of the trip finally breaking him down, or he’s infected by the spirit of “La Dolce Vita” (as Brydon frequently, and erroneously, exclaims), it’s a big moment for Coogan, and for “Coogan.” I suppose it doesn’t matter which one.

The Trip to Italy is a lot like a great Italian meal: wonderful for a time, then it becomes too much…yet afterwards, you only remember enjoying yourself. If Brydon, Coogan, and Winterbottom were to take their metafiction somewhere new, whether France, Germany, or Midwest USA, I’d happily come back for thirds.

Grade: B

Also available On Demand.

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