The Trip to Italy’s total lack of necessity has little bearing on its enjoyability. There’s nothing wrong with watching a pair of lyrical, spry, and acid-tongued comics lashing each other with barbed commentary while enjoying the operatic grandeur of a foodie junket through Italy’s more salubrious and sun-splashed districts. Does it matter that they’re not bringing much new to the party?
2010’s The Trip was a moody, raucous, and dyspeptic gem. British comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon played tweaked variations of themselves driving around the northern English countryside, eating at gourmet restaurants as research for a travel piece while also visiting sites of interest for Romantic poets like Wordsworth. In between taking jabs at the eateries’ arriviste pretensions, Coogan and Brydon played toxic frenemies, cutting each other up with their routines when not cutting the other down. The premise for the sequel couldn’t be much simpler: Coogan and Brydon go to Italy, drive around, eat food, bicker, talk poetry and fame (this time it’s Byron and Shelley), and fume and foment under black clouds of creative ambition and anxiety.
They do so in knowing awareness of the dangers of repetition. Barely a few minutes in, the two are sitting down to their first meal and first cracking on about how movie sequels are never any good before using a repeat of the first film’s famous Michael Caine impression contest to launch into an extended bit on Tom Hardy’s facemask in The Dark Knight Rises. The moment would be too meta by half where it not for the skill with which Coogan and Brydon egg each other on. They’re like a pair of improv comics who used to be part of a famous duo and have forgotten how much fun it is to work together; though they would die before admitting it, even after being convulsed in laughter.
The Trip to Italy settles down after that, taking more interest in its surroundings. The landscapes that scroll past, particularly the romantic and moody coastal gems in Liguria and Amalfi, are briskly photographed but nevertheless manage to knock you out with their beauty. This is an unabashed travelogue that’s perfectly happy to pad out its comic bickering with sparkling cinematography and luxuriant shots of pasta twirling onto forks and scallops sizzling in pan. Curiously, even though each of the restaurants looks like a place one would be happy to a day luxuriating in, the food is almost a backdrop to the story itself. Part of this is simply the sequel’s change in location. The first film’s locations were adventurous foodie laboratories set down in spots not known for fine dining; they had something to prove. Many fine Italian restaurants have less of an urge to show off some new-found gastronomic innovation, focusing on finely crafted interpretations of classics.
A downside to this shift in focus is that the film spends more time on Coogan and Brydon’s relationship. Though he’s the bigger star, Coogan’s skin-crawling insecurity and his need to insult and degrade the more happy-go-lucky Brydon drove much of the first film’s dramatic underpinnings. Now, Coogan appears to have cooled down and matured, necessitating an overlong and pointless plot wrinkle involving his teenage son. Brydon’s insecurity is ramped up, his conversations almost entirely composed in celebrity impressions and his eyes now more easily turned by beautiful women. There’s an attempt to frame their alternately jabbing and thoughtful conversations about the poets and aging as a rumination on mortality and the longevity of their art. Given the glorious surroundings, the film can usually pull this off. But too often the narrative falls back on sitcom-level insults. “Yes, you’ve got a moral compass; you just don’t know where it is,” and such.
Winterbottom edits with a lighter touch this time, and that lets the film feel longer than it should. (The Trip to Italy was edited down from a six-episode BBC series, like its predecessor.) Winterbottom is also credited as writer, but one imagines that a run-and-gun filmmaker like he provided more of a lattice of story arcs and beats for his actors to dress up in their own way. Until the last third or so, when Coogan and Brydon’s other lives rudely intrude, they nearly pull off this balancing act. No, this isn’t the equal of The Trip. But dismissing the whole film, when there are comedy duds like Anchorman 2 and Shanghai Knights out there, would seem downright ungracious.