2010’s The Trip ends with a thoroughly desolate version of the actor Steve Coogan standing in his empty apartment, gazing at a broad, gloomy view of London. He’s just completed a food tour of the north of England on assignment for The Observer—with an affable, soulless version of the actor Rob Brydon, a man he despises but whose friendship he basically accepts, as his companion—but he’s in no state of mind to write about the things he’s seen or the food he’s eaten. Four years later or the very next day, he’s standing on a balcony with a similar but sunnier view, when Brydon calls and invites him on a food tour of Italy. For reasons that go unstated, Brydon has taken over the food writing assignments, and it’s clear he’s better able to prepare himself for a life of travel, in particular to bring the relevant poetry books.
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Producer: Melissa Parmenter
Writer: Michael Winterbottom
Cinematographer: James Clarke
Editors: Mags Arnold, Robbie Gibbon, Paul Monaghan, Marc Richardson
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Rosie Fellner, Claire Keelan, Ronni Ancona, Marta Barrio, Timothy Leach, Rebecca Johnson
Premiere: January 20, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 15, 2014
US Distributor: IFC Films
The Trip to Italy, which finds the two actors reunited with director Michael Winterbottom, picks up exactly where (if not when) The Trip left off, not as a way to continue to track Coogan’s personal and professional woes, but to expeditiously shuffle him from the protagonist’s seat and put the new film’s narrative weight on Brydon, still affable, but perhaps not as affable as he seems (or so goes one of the film’s funniest bits). In the earlier film, Brydon, in the few moments of calm amidst his incessant stream of voices and imitations, comes across as nothing more or less than a sweet man, on leave from uncomplicated domestic bliss. But Coogan, in a hilarious and cruel faux eulogy for his friend, describes him as an actor concealing a void, a man with no personality of his own. That definition keeps sneaking up in alarming ways in The Trip to Italy, especially in the film’s half-haunting nightcaps, when the two men sit in their separate hotel rooms at the end of each day’s journey and Brydon continues to spout voices to an audience of none.
Coogan, meanwhile, appears contented and somewhat more fulfilled in this film, and his relationship with his teenage son has visibly improved, but it quickly becomes obvious that the two men have learned little from, and remember little of, their earlier adventure. They are men incapable of improvement. They begin their journey on the same note of gay panic (Brydon making a crack about sharing a room, Coogan looking very uncomfortable), as if totally unaware they went through all of this last time. It’s one of many “greatest hits,” along with dueling Michael Caine imitations, Brydon’s poetry recitals, Coogan’s lyrical analysis of pop songs, etc., that viewers will remember from the first film, but The Trip to Italy could hardly be called a sequel in the usual sense. Every time it falls back on these “hits,” it reveals the characters’ shortcomings, not its own.
But even as the film sometimes pushes these recurring bits to the threshold of fatigue, its departures from expected patterns suggest an adaptable formula that could bode well for future installments in the series. Wisely dispensing with the extended prologue and epilogue of the earlier film, The Trip to Italy lets all evidence of Brydon’s and Coogan’s inner turmoil surface on the road, and roughly organizes into two movements, each ending in sailing, swelling music, a sense of buoyancy, and Brydon making an extramarital blunder, first pursuing an affair with “a pirate,” and later confessing his further intentions to a confidante, as Coogan and son frolic in a blinding sunset sea. The film’s beautiful and sunny Italian locations, compared to The Trip’s wily, windy moors, lend the actors the glow of health and psychological stability, though the latter is certainly an illusion. And with the setting’s attendant fine food and wine and conversation, the film takes on the glow of respectability, making its extensive cinematic cruelty all the more potent. Death, the root cause of all intermediary anxieties, looms. Brydon, in the film’s greatest and most hysterical insult to propriety, carries out a conversation with one of the preserved victims of Pompeii, giving it the voice of his “Small Man Trapped in a Box” routine, as its fossilized agony fills the frame. Later, among mountains of human skulls, Coogan begins one of Hamlet’s soliloquies, likening Brydon to poor Yorick.
These films’ great appeal stems largely from the way Brydon and Coogan vacillate between appropriate and inappropriate responses to locations and situations. Sometimes Brydon recites a poem that truly speaks to the occasion (The Trip to Italy trades Coleridge and Wordsworth for Byron); sometimes his storehouse of voices and bits takes control; often Coogan attacks his sincerity. It’s a tourist’s problem, and a 21st century problem. In a crucial scene in The Trip, Brydon chooses and learns a poem for a visit to Bolton Abbey, and Coogan points out, “You weren’t interested in Wordsworth before we went on this trip,” disallowing the tourist’s attempt to prepare himself for a place, and suggesting that a person’s interest in a subject must be deeply authentic to pass inspection. He reveals his paranoid self-consciousness when he concedes that he appreciates Brydon’s effort, but knows it’s meant to intimidate him. He never questions his own sincerity.
His paranoia continues through The Trip to Italy. Meanwhile, Brydon can’t get his Stereophonics-laden iPod to work in the car, so a copy of Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill, retrieved from the boot, soundtracks their journey through breathtaking Italian vistas. That’s the greatest historical and geographical insult of all, the soundtrack, but the molten guitars of “All I Really Want” sound excellent in the fresh, rushing air, and Morrisette’s “volatile woman” persona allows Coogan and Brydon much droll commentary on their misunderstanding of women. They drive, they eat, they talk. Life happens via the mouth. The viewer who understands life as a situation of moving through spaces, eating and carrying on pointless conversations, sometimes elevated by attunement to history and surroundings, will find the two men’s travels as poignant as they are pathetic and hilarious.