PARK CITY — Early on in Michael Winterbottom’s follow-up to 2010’s The Trip, a skeptical Steve Coogan frets to frenemy Rob Brydon about the prospect of taking a second vacation together, again to gather material for food-travel stories the latter intends to write; sequels are generally ill-advised, he contends. When Brydon cites the second chapter of the Corleone saga, Coogan swats it down as the aberration people always cite in sequels’ defense. “It just feels odd to do something for the second time,” he squirms.
Well, The Trip to Italy is the Godfather 2 of road movies in which brilliant British comedians take the piss out of each other while eating exquisite food. As funny as the first go-round, more beautiful to look at, and better conceived, it should mark a high point in the prolific director’s box office career, with the obvious exception of his Angelina Jolie starrer A Mighty Heart.
This is less a sequel, really, than the third in a trilogy: Winterbottom first observed the chemistry between the two actors in 2005’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, where the behind-the-scenes component of his meta-film, in which they snipe at each other and argue over their relative importance to the production, was by itself plenty of reason to see it.
This time out, the men (playing themselves, with fictional details added where needed) have been commissioned to review a half-dozen Italian restaurants ranging all the way from the top of the boot, in the vicinity of Cinque Terre, to Sicily at the bottom. Coogan assumes that Sicily was thrown in just to give Brydon an excuse to do Godfather-inspired Al Pacino impressions (a callback to Shandy), but that’s just the tip of the cinephilic iceberg: Throughout the film, the men and their occasional companions obsess over talk of movies that were filmed at whatever famous spot they happen to be. Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, Bogie in Beat the Devil, Godard stripping Bardot down in Contempt, and of course La Dolce Vita and Roman Holiday — all are springboards for riffs on movies and, more importantly, for impersonations of their stars.
Coogan and Brydon can’t help themselves, loudly arguing about the best way to imitate De Niro (the trick is speaking through your nose) or Brando (stuff bread in your cheeks). If you’d saved all your life to see Italy and were treating yourself at one of the esteemed restaurants seen here, you might be furious at being seated next to such a voluble party. Quiet diners’ loss is our gain, though: One long riff on Christopher Nolan‘s Batman films, which begins (of course) with Michael Caine and ends in an imagined on-set confrontation between an assistant director and Tom Hardy (the AD is timidly trying to get the muzzled Bane to enunciate more clearly), is side-splitting.
Increasingly as the trip progresses, this talk competes with what they’ve come to see. The pair crack wise among the frozen dead of Pompeii; confronted with ancient piles of skulls in a catacomb, they start arguing about the exact wording of the “Alas, poor Yorick” line, then start debating other frequently misquoted bits of drama. Anyone trying to have a silent moment in contemplation of mortality would just have to wait them out.
It’s not all movies. Brydon has plotted a route heavy with sites visited by Byron and Shelley, and both men pepper their talk with enough Romantic quotes to sound fairly erudite — until they realize it’s more fun to quote a poem when you’re doing it in a famous actor’s voice.
The trip itself offers our travelers enough pleasures to generate lethal envy in the viewer: Breathtaking vistas; cruising the Amalfi coast in a top-down Mini Cooper; hotel suites that probably cost as much as that Mini; and the aforementioned restaurants, where tableside banter is interrupted by occasional food-porny shots of chefs in the kitchen.
As in the previous film, we have a subplot involving infidelity: This time, Brydon is the cheater. The episode is nicely underplayed, with the actor making little vulgar jokes afterward when clearly what he wants to express is remorse and anxiety. Coogan gets to be the good boy, eventually diverting the trip to rescue his son from a boring trip to Ibiza (the poor kid). These little scraps of fiction weave nicely with occasional references to aging, to the die-young-and-beautiful Romantics, to those aforementioned tourist sites consumed with death. There’s palpable melancholy here, hiding somewhere between the improvised zingers and Al Pacino impersonations.
Production Companies: Small Man, Baby Cow Films, Revolution Films
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Rosie Fellner, Claire Keelan, Marta Barrio, Timothy Leach, Ronni Ancona, Rebecca Johnson
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Producer: Melissa Parmenter
Director of photography: James Clarke
Editors: Mags Arnold, Paul Monaghan, Marc Richardson
No rating, 106 minutes