The Trip To Italy is a brilliant and entertaining companion piece to The Trip, the first and different collaboration between director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) and stars Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Rob Brydon (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story). Once again this feature-length film has been edited down from the original television mini series. The spectacular Italian scenery is coupled not just with rich food, but also poetry, affairs, auditions, Roman traffic jams, a barrage of film references and a more-than-healthy dose of impressions.
When Coogan is again commissioned to write an article on Italian cuisine for The Observer – an article his friend and prior companion Brydon wrote for him following their similarly food-fuelled trip through the Northern England Lake District – he reluctantly accepts. Within minutes we find ourselves in Italy, accompanying the crazy British pair as they navigate their way between destinations and argue about whether Alanis Morriset is suitable driving listening. They embark on a road trip through Italy, trialling the local seafood and pasta-based delicacies and lamenting on their personal and professional situations. Their road leads them through Tuscany, Rome, Pompeii and the Amalfi coast, in the footsteps of Brydon’s literary icons Byron and Shelley, before it all culminates in Capri with a few additional companions.
The men are once again playing fictionalised versions of themselves, and they are so comfortable together that it is easy to forget that the events are scripted (albeit loosely) and accept that they are a pair of foreign hooligans who have disrupted the peace. They remain very self-aware of both their professional and public image, and just how (slightly) skewed they are in the film. Coogan’s famous creation of Alan Partridge, and his darker younger days are alluded to in conversation, while Brydon’s ‘Small Man in a Box’ routine is the source of one of the film’s biggest guilty-laughs.
While they are each somewhat disillusioned by their firm positioning in middle age, Coogan, who seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, shifts between being welcomingly content and frustratingly mopey, but he does express a desire to leave behind his current projects in favour of repairing his relationship with his estranged teenage son, who is struggling to live civilly with his mother. Brydon is out to gain an ego boost and prove he still can charm a young lady and land a film role, while his marriage – this time conveyed entirely through short bursts of phone-sex-less conversation – is in an unexpectedly rocky patch.
The impressions are a riot, and come so thick and fast you have barely recovered from the gut-bursting laughs of the previous one. They range from old-staples like Michael Caine and Roger Moore to newbies like Christian Bale and Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises, to Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando in The Godfather films, to Michael Parkinson and his obsession with Michael Buble. For a film buff the film is rich in references, including mention of famous sequences in Roman Holiday and a spotting of an iconic setting in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt.
Brydon is the big wild card. He is excellent here. Coogan has been in terrific form recently, and he continues it, but Brydon possesses an inimitable energy. He takes every opportunity to introduce an impression, no matter the context of conversation, but I love how effortlessly excellent Coogan's are, and how secretly stoked he is about their excellence. Coogan also enjoys riffing on Brydon’s inability to recite poetry unless he uses an accent, or audition for a role in a Michael Mann film that doesn’t channel Pacino.
Is it a reversal of roles or an unexpected evolution of the men? They seem to be so different here, and it is refreshing to see. In The Trip you can see how agonizing it is for Brydon to remain in such high spirits after a week with Coogan. On the other hand, I’m not sure I could have endured all of Brydon’s impressions as Coogan did. Here, both men seem more comfortable with each other and enjoy the other’s company, and yet aren’t afraid to say something the other might not want to hear.
I’d love to watch both films (I haven’t seen the television series, so this analysis will solely be about the films) back-to-back and examine their subtle structural similarities. While in The Trip it was Coogan who was receiving audition offers and emotionlessly bedding the women they encounter, this time it is the unbridled and unexpectedly charming Brydon who is the more adventurous.
The pair bring up sequels several times, which quickly evolve into mentions of The Godfather Part II and duelling Al Pacino impressions, but they have embraced head-on a viewer’s apprehension to once again join the pair on their escapades and risk the food and camaraderie-fuelled journey to be overwhelmed by location spectacle.
I laughed throughout The Trip to Italy. It is sharper and tighter than first film with rare lulls. Their journey is melancholic, contemplative, humanistic and ultimately moving; a study of middle-age, masculinity, ego and the impact of age on the career of a performer and how one reacts to life’s unpredictable ebbs and flows.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22