How you feel about The Trip to Italy, Michael Winterbottom’s follow-up to The Trip (2011), will depend a good deal on how you felt about the first film. (Indeed, there are undercurrents in this one that are only fully comprehensible if you saw the first one.) If you liked the original, chances are you’ll like this, though it must be noted that some of the freshness of that first one is missing. But there’s a trade-off here that isn’t entirely a bad thing. The sense of familiarity allows the new film to delve deeper into the imaginary characters of its two stars. The results are a sadder, more penetrating — yet still very funny — work that may linger in the mind longer than The Trip.
In fact, for a film as frequently amusing as this, The Trip to Italy is a pretty somber affair. If it weren’t, however, its whole raison d’être would be in doubt. Even Winterbottom and stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon seem to understand this. The film addresses early on the frequently true notion that sequels are inferior to the originals, settling somewhat pedestrianly on The Godfather: Part II (1974) as the exception. In terms of premise and structure, The Trip to Italy is pretty much a straightforward duplicate of the first film, but with Italy standing in for England’s Lake District. (Both films seem to favor locations associated with poets.) There are surface differences, especially in that now Brydon is an equal partner (maybe even a little more than equal) in the newspaper-financed gastronomic tour of a region. If anything, Coogan seems to be the one who’s along for the ride. The film — possibly because, like the original, it’s culled from six 30-minute TV episodes — is a little muddled on this point.
Specifics hardly matter, since the draw here is once again the bitchy banter of these two middle-aged personalities as they dine among picturesque locations. (Calling them stars is a little of a stretch, especially in the case of Brydon.) The idea is that they’ll eat at fine restaurants, flirt with women, argue with each other — and, of course, try to one-up each other’s celebrity impressions. This last is the major thing that seems to appeal to audiences, though the real joke to me is that most of their impressions aren’t all that good — Michael Caine excepted. A lot of them only work at all because we’ve been informed who it is they’re impersonating. I’m not sure if this is conscious or not, though the idea of jockeying for supremacy at something neither is especially good at is both amusing and a little sad. It suggests that neither is quite comfortable as himself. The film actually addresses this when Coogan remarks that Brydon has to recite things in someone else’s voice or he doesn’t sound sincere.
One of the delights of the concept is that — rather like an acerbic Laurel and Hardy — Coogan and Brydon play themselves in name only. Sort of. While their characters are fictionalized versions of themselves, they also make references to their real life careers, creating a strangely complex mixture of fact and fantasy. The viewer is always on guard and a little off balance in this regard. Even knowing that Coogan has no son — estranged or otherwise — and that Brydon is not about to be in a Michael Mann thriller, it takes an effort not to accept what we see as fact. The irony may be that Coogan and Brydon are at their best pretending to be a version of themselves that doesn’t really exist. That’s not out of keeping with the tone of a film that’s as much about aging, mortality, the limits of friendship, loneliness and the safe veneer of ego-driven superiority as it is about gastronomy and comedic impressions. In fact, it’s probably more about those things. Not Rated, but contains adult themes and fairly constant swearing.