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The Trip to Italy, Michael Winterbottom’s second improvised travelogue starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, was the Godfather II of food-porn comedies that revolve around impressions of Michael Caine: It offered all the pleasures of the original (2010’s The Trip) while deepening its themes and giving viewers more to look at.
The good news for fans is that The Trip to Spain is no Godfather III. The moderately bad news is that this sometimes hilarious outing is the one in which the conceit comes to resemble a lushly produced, irregularly broadcast TV series, each episode built of recombinations of now-familiar material, inserting novelty only where required — and half-heartedly, at that. Though sure to draw a significant chunk of Italy‘s audience to theaters, it will play best to casual admirers of the actors who haven’t gotten around to seeing all their collaborations.
Skipping the “should we really go back to the well?” prologue that smartly began the last outing, this one starts with something like a shrug: Coogan calls up Brydon to invite him on another expense-paid voyage, where he will allegedly work on a novel while Brydon writes restaurant reviews. Looking over at his screaming infant son while mulling the invitation, Brydon accepts.
The pair take a ferry over to the continent this time, landing in a seaside spot where the first lunch bodes well for the film, cuisine-wise: seafood a la plancha, dishes so simple and perfect-looking you might reconsider whatever plans you had for post-movie dining. While we’re drooling, the banter starts up. Though Brydon couldn’t get past his second scene before breaking into a bit of his Pacino impression, well known by this point, this conversation suggests there may be stranger territory ahead: The men aren’t simply mimicking Michael Caine, they’re one-upping each other in an attempt to sound like Mick Jagger imitating Michael Caine. (Promising, yes, but less fun than it sounds — except for Coogan’s pouty little mid-air hand claps.)
We learn that Coogan has reunited with an old girlfriend who is now married, and that his 20-year-old son will be joining the two men at the tail end of the journey. But the talk of children is mainly a reason for the friends to buck each other up on the subject of age. Fifty, they conclude, really is “the sweet spot,” with plenty of living ahead and many hurdles already cleared. Just don’t get out of bed too hurriedly in the mornings, lest you twist something.
One other shred of plot-ish material arrives early: Coogan gets a call from his American agent’s assistant, who informs him that his agent no longer works for the firm, and the assistant will be taking over. Oh: And the studio loved that screenplay he just co-wrote for them, so much that they’ve hired an up-and-coming screenwriter to do a polish. Pride-fueled angst, and several more phone calls, ensue, but none of the above adds up to a narrative scaffold as solid as the last film had.
And so we have improvisational scenes of the two at restaurant tables and in a car, riffing on pop culture and needling each other. Add up the laughs here, and you’d be justified paying 15 bucks to get them: Coogan’s sight/sound gag about Brydon’s hearing aid; Brydon gloating that David Bowie followed him on Twitter; Brydon deflating Coogan’s post-Philomena ego. (Coogan talks as if he won the Oscar for co-writing that screenplay, but a funny dream sequence — which cheats by substituting director Steve McQueen’s name for writer John Ridley’s — reminds him the award went to 12 Years a Slave.) At the banter’s best, we see the men surprised enough by each other’s wit that they pause just a split-second before proffering a response.
But then women enter the picture, and the men are at anything but their best. Coogan’s assistant and a female photographer join them to take some publicity images, and when they go out for meals together the dynamic has turned ugly: When competing for the laughs and attention of others, we see, Brydon and Coogan are much less endearing than when they’re alone. They get so loud and grating that one wonders if this is how Trip to Spain will break out of the mold, provoking a confrontation in which the men have to own up to their obnoxiousness.
What we get instead is considerably less risky, and less satisfying. It’s only after the credits roll, after weighing how one feels about the dubious taste of the movie’s closing scene, that we realize how the picture oddly seemed to care less and less about the food as it went — offering nice historical tidbits and photobook-worthy settings (hello, Alhambra!) but less of the vicarious epicurean pleasure its opening, not to mention its predecessors, promised so assertively.
Production company: Revolution Films
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Marta Barrio, Claire Keelan, Margo Stilley
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Producers: Melissa Parmenter, Josh Hyams
Director of photography: James Clarke
Editors: Mags Arnold, Paul Monaghan, Marc Richardson
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
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