Review: ‘The Trip to Italy’

Written and Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon

‘The Trip to Italy,’ Michael Winterbottom’s sometimes-frothy, sometimes-meditative follow-up to his 2010 comedy ‘The Trip’ once again tantalizes viewers with sharp banter, decadent food, a breathtaking countryside, and unexpected moments of poignancy. The film is inevitably less fresh and original than its predecessor, and seems to recognize that about itself: “It’s like trying to do a sequel,” says one of our co-protagonists as the two gear up for a second food-themed road trip. “It’s never going to be as good as the first time.” But “The Trip to Italy” still offers a distinct portrait of middle-aged restlessness and crossroads.

The Trip to Italy” is less steeped in overt melancholy and tension than its predecessor. Our intrepid culinary adventurers largely get along this time around. Instead, the film’s conflict is firmly internal. Winterbottom and stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon – effortlessly playing fictional simulacrums of themselves – use the film’s largely unscripted, improvisational nature to explore complex themes without settling on pat, reductive answers.

The_Trip_to_Italy_Poster“The Trip to Italy” –which, like ‘The Trip,’ originated as a miniseries and was edited down to feature length–picks up a few years after the original’s closing scene, in which Steve rejects filming an American TV pilot to rededicate himself to raising his teenage son. But in a rather hysterical off-screen about-face, Steve apparently changed his mind between films. The sequel finds him in America, learning that his tacky CBS procedural has been cancelled. Steve is offered a much-needed vacation when relentless celebrity impersonator and now close friend Rob calls with a familiar job opportunity: The two have been asked to review a handful of renowned Italian restaurants for The Observer (because who wouldn’twant Steve Coogan’s dining tips?). Steve again finds himself touring a gorgeous European countryside with Rob, ostensibly to review food, but really to chase girls, eat for free, and enjoy each other’s company.

Like ‘The Trip,’ “The Trip to Italy” boasts no shortage of lavish meals, panoramic landscapes, or Al Pacino impersonations. Winterbottom’s camera has sharpened in the intervening years, as he repeatedly finds images of beauty to layer in between the dynamic duo’s witty repartee. From sparkling coastlines, to meticulous food prep, to haunting images of Mt. Vesuvius victims preserved in solidified ash, Winterbottom never forgets to give viewers something dazzling to look at.

But there are areas where Steve’s meta-quote about sequels proves prophetic. Italy’s pasta-heavy cuisine isn’t as visually distinct as the predecessor’s daring North England dishes. And Rob’s M.O. of spontaneously bursting into celebrity impressions at the slightest provocation covers a lot of familiar ground, and starts to yield diminishing returns. It remains a treat to hear Rob conjure Pacino, revive his Michael Caine, and even get his Connery on, yet these scenes don’t approach the comic heights of the original’s epic Caine-off.

The Trip,” while frothy, was infused with a nervous tension and urgency due to Steve’s palpable loneliness and personal and professional frustrations. That film found Steve snapping at Rob’s impressions, snarling about his own middling star power, and generally on edge about his next life step. A Trip to Italy finds Steve taking a pause, as Coogan does a pitch-perfect job of portraying a prematurely weary man trying to catch his breath after a professional failure. He still doesn’t know where his life is heading, but unlike last time, he appears ready to take stock and figure out what matters to him before hastening to a decision. This Steve joins Rob in the impersonating with far less reluctance than last time. Rather than obsessing about his acting stature, he takes Rob’s dig about his limitations in stride. Steve’s mellower outlook sets the film’s leisurely, meditative tone and allows audiences to feel like they’re sitting down for a pleasant conversation with old friends.

Rob – previously Steve’s jovial, happily married foil – finds himself succumbing to middle-aged restlessness and discontentment, as he tiptoes into the waters of infidelity. Brydon digs deep into his fictional doppelganger’s emotions and ambitions here. Rob’s wife is distracted with their child whenever Rob calls home, and she seems emotionally checked out of their marriage. The film doesn’t condemn Rob’s infidelity, but it doesn’t let him off the hook either. One of the film’s greatest strengths is the way it provokes meaningful questions about middle-age without providing trite, obligatory answers. Themes and ideas float in the air for viewers to ponder, creating a lovely elasticity of meaning and offering a range of interpretations. In a memorable scene, Rob asks an acquaintance for their thoughts on his cheating, but clarifies that he’s not looking for a scolding or forgiveness. And indeed, the film offers neither.

The film’s repeated use of Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill,” which Rob selects as their soundtrack for the road trip, is a strong choice. That album evokes the characters’ angst and discontentment.

Though “The Trip to Italy” is a successful sequel, its reliance on atmosphere, humor, and character over narrative should make it easy for viewers to appreciate without having seen the original. While it covers terrain similar to its predecessor, the film thrives on sharp acting, wry wit, easy camaraderie, and unexpected moments of poignancy. It’s a pleasure to spend another two hours with Steve and Rob as they continue their adventures in food, romance, travel, and mid-life turbulence.

Jason Teich

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