I've spent a bit of time in Italy. From Trentino-Alto Adige in the north to Sicily in the south, from Sardegna to the west to Le Marche to the east, I've driven the main autostradas and back roads to big cities and mountain villages alike. So two of the last several movies I have seen struck me as something special. The first was “Five Star Life,” which I reviewed last week.”
This week the movie is “The Trip to Italy,” Michael Winterbottom's sequel to his 2010 movie “The Trip,” which stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon engaged in a kind of comic competition as they drive through Italy. The film opens today at the Magic Lantern, and following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
Travel documentaries can be deadly dull. My version of hell would be any hour spent listening to some talking head warble on about the joys of visiting Oslo, Norway, lutefisk eateries. Give me Anthony Bourdain, and his knowledge of good food and drink accompanied by those trademark cynical asides.
This shows you why I am such a fan of Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Winterbottom, if you don’t know, is an English director of such films as “24 Hour Party People” and “The Killer Inside Me.” Coogan is an English movie and television performer, known for his “Alan Partridge” character and films such as “Night at the Museum” and “Philomena.” The Welsh-born writer and actor Brydon is less familiar this side of the Atlantic, though he did appear in Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.”
What’s important is that in 2010, the trio – with Winterbottom directing, Coogan and Brydon mostly improvising – released a mockumentary titled “The Trip” (which evolved from a BBC series). The film boasts a simple set-up: Coogan and Brydon play fictional versions of themselves, touring England’s finest dining establishments so that Coogan can write a story for the newspaper The Observer.
At the last moment, Coogan’s girlfriend had backed out, leading him to invite Brydon – with whom he shares a nettlesome friendship based, largely it seems, on their continuing comedy one-up-manship (revolving around, among other things, their respective abilities to impersonate Michael Caine). What the film becomes, then, is a study of the two characters, engaged in an mostly friendly road-trip competition, with fictional – we assume – details slowly being revealed as the English countryside whizzes by and, gradually, a series of gourmet meals are shown prepared and devoured.
Sounds boring, right? Far from it. Coogan and Brydon are brilliant performers. And Winterbottom is so skilled at keeping their talents at the center of his film, all while surrounding them with natural and gastronomic beauty, that it’s hard to appreciate that beauty when the movie offers up so many ongoing invitations to laugh.
“The Trip to Italy,” which opens this week at the Magic Lantern, is a perfect sequel. This time it is Brydon who has been approached by The Observer, and he calls Coogan – living in Los Angeles and on hiatus from his U.S. television series – and invites him to come along. In the first film, an arrogant, restless Coogan was the more dominant of the two. Here, though, their roles slowly reverse. It becomes clear that Brydon, and not Coogan, had ended up writing the Observer stories. And it is the very-married Brydon who finds himself tempted into bad behavior. A subdued Coogan, meanwhile, attempts to bond with his estranged teenage son while fighting with Brydon over his musical tastes: Alanis Morrisette, anyone? And the impersonation competition now involves Al Pacino.
The result is a deeper, richer comedy, still filled with laughs but underscored by a sense of real life. And this time the background is la bella Italia. Really, now. What’s not to like?