The Trip to Italy
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Released in 2014
Despite its reverence for ancient architecture, Romantic poetry and mid-century Italian cinema, The Trip to Italy is very much grounded in the here and now. It stars two funny British men, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves eating, laughing and griping their way through the not-so-fictional travails of middle age. The effortless comedy between Coogan and Brydon concerns mortality, irrelevance and depression, of the chronic, unassailable kind. While the film is hilarious and sunny and beautiful, the sadness beneath it all is tough to shake, especially with the deaths of Robin Williams and “adulthood,” as New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently argued, weighing on our minds.
The Trip to Italy does more or less what The Trip did in 2010, except writer-director Michael Winterbottom trades the dreary pastoral of northern England for the immaculate shores and cliff faces of western Italy. As in the last film, The Observer hires Coogan and Brydon to tour the country and eat at gourmet restaurants under the pretext of writing a review, which only Brydon ends up doing. Who knows why a national newspaper would hire two comedians who know nothing about food to write criticism of it, but it gives them carte blanche to trade celebrity impressions, Lord Byron and Shelley trivia and bizarre hypotheticals at the table. For instance: In the event the two of them were stranded without food after a plane crash, Coogan admits, “I’d eat your legs before Stephen Hawking’s,” but he’d savor the physicist’s brain before even digging into Brydon’s.
Like The Trip, this 108-minute film is condensed from a six-part series that aired in April and May on the BBC. That explains the loose nature of the editing, which covers gaps in conversation with cutaways to kitchens where chefs prepare incredible-looking meals like pot-roasted rabbit, grilled octopus, stuffed onions and lots of pasta. If some of the craft feels haphazard, it only complements the banter, which feels off-the-cuff and ingeniously silly. The dueling Michael Caine routine returns, with the two parodying Caine’s yodel-like crying in The Dark Knight Rises. (“I’ve buried 14 Batmans, with their little pointy ears.”) Because they are in Italy, expect a lot of Pacino and Brando from The Godfather, the latter of whom, according to Coogan, sounds like a “deaf person” when Brydon attempts it.
The hostility between the two men has waned since the first movie, and one detects a palpable ease when they are singing along to Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill, the only CD in the car, away from failed or failing marriages back home. More often than not, Brydon and Coogan behave like little boys, which is why the introduction of their agent Emma (Claire Keelan) and other intelligent women who prefer Mary Shelley to Percy Bysshe threatens to ruin their fun. Competition also gets the best of Coogan when Brydon auditions for “a starring role” (he’s actually an accountant) in a new Michael Mann film. For his audition tape, Brydon steals a kiss from a young waitress reading with him, and Coogan almost loses it when she says she enjoyed it.
There is lot of film history running through The Trip to Italy, in its dialogue, title and very construction. The men idolize Bogart, Pacino, De Niro and Marcello Mastroianni, and Brydon even dreams in Godfather cosplay. The title echoes Rossellini’s Journey to Italy and sure enough, Coogan and Brydon visit Pompeii for an existential crisis rivaling Ingrid Bergman’s own. Emma refers to Godard’s Contempt when she jokes about “that Brigitte Bardot film” that plays its romantic theme over and over again as we hear Richard Strauss’s similarly majestic “Im Abendrot” on the soundtrack for the umpteenth time. She says this while they ride a motorboat along the rocky Italian coast, as in Antonioni’s L’Avventura.
This all amounts to little more than cinephile miscellany, but this awareness of and devotion to the past packs a bit of weight onto what could easily be paper-thin YouTube comedy. The stop at Pompeii, in particular, marries the dark with the light: Gazing upon an ash-covered mummy preserved behind glass, the two men belittle his choice of sandals and guess at what he was doing before he died. Brydon asks the corpse himself in a virtuosic routine where he answers his own questions with the nasal, muffled voice of a man stuck in a glass box. For some reason, this crosses the line for Coogan, who storms out of the hall. But Brydon carries on, unloading his friend’s problems and his own onto this devoted listener, who happens to be dead. It’s funny because, well, what else could it be, but it reminds us one man’s entertainment is another’s sole channel of release.
3.5 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.