Culinary journey ‘The Trip to Italy’ isn’t the foodie film you’d expect
Back in 2011, comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon went on The Trip. No, not the psychedelic kind; it was a feature film culled from a six-part British television series in which they played lightly fictionalized versions of themselves, comedian buddies who ate and wisecracked their way across England’s Lake District as ad-hoc restaurant critics for London’s Observer newspaper. The basic story was shaped by director Michael Winterbottom, but the dialogue was largely improvised. And while the laughs were often hit or miss, I do recall one comic riff which made me think I was literally going to die laughing.
There were no moments in the Coogan-Brydon follow-up film, The Trip To Italy, in which I actually feared for my life. But the laughs are more consistent, and the wistfulness of the framing story—touching as it does on such issues as age, talent, friendship, and mortality—is more effectively done this time around. Besides which, as you might expect from a film about a culinary road trip to Italy, the locations are dazzling to behold—Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast, Capri, and Rome to name a few. And then, of course, there’s the food.
This time, it’s Rob who lands the Observer gig, and invites buddy Steve—recently home again after an extended stay in Los Angeles, playing the celebrity game—to come along. Instantly, they’re in a rented Mini Cooper maneuvering about the luscious terraced hillsides of Portofino, overlooking the sea. Steve has quit drinking (initially), Rob is the proud papa of a new little toddler daughter, and they discuss the fact that a movie sequel is never going to be as good as the first one.
But otherwise, it’s business as usual. They crack deadpan jokes, unleash dueling impressions of movie stars at each other (Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Gore Vidal, Brando as the Godfather), and consider culture, pop and otherwise—from Romantic poets Byron and Shelley to Alanis Morissette. (Rob asks, “Where do you stand on Michael Bublé?” “On his windpipe?” Steve suggests.) Their wits are quick, and never more so than when a bit of banter about Caine leads to a hilarious riff on the last Batman movie when it was impossible to understand a word uttered by either Christian Bale or villain Tom Hardy.
Yet underneath the shenanigans, there’s a definite sense of time’s winged chariot gliding inexorably by. No longer the womanizer he was in the first film, Steve’s habits border on the ascetic. Of course, they’re at the age when younger women tend to look right through them.
(“Nature never disappoints,” notes Rob, when they take refuge in the scenery as an alternative to flirting.) And while Rob invents a funny, Senor Wences-style voice for a frozen corpse in a glass box in the ruins of Pompeii, the scene suggests both to the comics and the audience that our time on this planet is not, in fact, infinite.
Meanwhile, as fabulous as the food (succulent pasta, elaborate side dishes, seafood rustica) looks—when we get a glimpse of it—this isn’t a “foodie film” in the sense that anyone spends much time rhapsodizing over the vittles. It’s all about the repartee when these guys sit down to a meal. And while they emit the occasional sigh or groan of orgasmic pleasure over what’s on their plates, they never actually discuss the food. It’s hard to imagine that their restaurant reviews would be very useful in real life; as food critics, they’re great comedians.
Things do run out of steam after a while. And a very sudden and ambiguous ending may leave some viewers scratching their heads. Still, the easy camaraderie of Coogan and Brydon and the fun of watching their inventive comic minds at work—not to mention the gorgeous scenery and great-looking food—may be enough to inspire viewers to tag along for the ride.
THE TRIP TO ITALY *** (out of four) With Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Written and directed by Michael Winterbottom. An IFC release. (Not rated) 108 minutes.