The Trip to Italy
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Opens Sept. 5 at the Charles Theatre
They’re ba-ack! Aloof, self-satisfied British comedian/actor Steve Coogan (played by Steve Coogan) and his friend, Welsh comic, actor, and impressionist Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon) are once again enjoying the comfy luxury of a culinary adventure courtesy of Britain’s The Observer newspaper. In 2010’s “The Trip,” the pair toured northern England, bickering and trading impersonations of Michael Caine and Sean Connery over meals. At night, Coogan bedded a series of women and Brydon contentedly phoned his wife at home. The new “The Trip to Italy” puts the two gents in a convertible Mini Cooper as they chase the ghosts of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley over the scenic hills of stunning Tuscany and the Amalfi coast. The warring Caine impressions return, as do the barbed dinner conversations, this time in a more visually spectacular setting than the first, dutifully conforming to the laws of movie sequels.
Or does it? Director Michael Winterbottom is a bit like Steven Soderbergh, an auteur so competently workmanlike that it’s easy to overlook the risks he’s willing to take. And with “Italy” he’s up to a sly parody of the male buddy flick; he just makes it look like an ordinary sequel from the get-go. Coogan and Brydon acerbically joke about getting the band back together as “Italy” opens—and the inevitable allusion to “The Godfather II,” the oft-mentioned lone sequel that doesn’t suck, shortly follows—which serves as a cheeky invitation to be in on the movie’s winking in-jokes. At the pair’s first meal, they settle into the sporting gamesmanship that made “The Trip” such a gas. Caine impersonations lead to riffs about “The Dark Knight Rises,” including an imagined bit about Tom Hardy’s impenetrable voice and the PA too timid to ask him to change it. It’s an inspired burst of comedic improv, showcasing how quickly Brydon and Coogan respond to each other. It’s also a bit of a con, seducing you into settling back and enjoying another round of funny guys doing funny things that funny guys do—only this time, bigger and deffer.
Brydon and Coogan first debuted these exaggerated fictional versions of themselves in Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.” That 2005 movie proved that Laurence Sterne’s genre-annihilating 18th-century novel was, in fact, unfilmable, but it also laid the groundwork for these two “Trip” films. “Tristram” was the actors’ first genuine lead pairing (Brydon had a minor role in “24 Hour Party People”), and their onscreen chemistry suggests the familiarity of lifelong friends, although in real life they’d only known of each other a few years. The movie, however, established the cinematic friendship that fuels the “Trip” series: Brydon is the ordinary bloke and lesser-known sidekick, Coogan is the movie star and arrogant prick.
How fortunes have changed in “Italy” is what drives its conflicts. In the film, Coogan’s American TV series has ended, which is why he has time for the adventure, while Brydon has just scored a role in an upcoming Michael Mann film (no, neither of these projects exists). Coogan’s teenaged son Joe (Timothy Leach) is off with his mother and her new younger man in Ibiza, and Coogan is going through the middle-age doldrums of figuring out his work-life balance. The happily married Brydon of the first “Trip” is now feeling the itch of having a baby at home, making his wife harried and preoccupied, and his eyes begin wandering to the comely young Lucy (Rosie Fellner) who crews the sailboat that ferries the traveling Englishmen to a secluded beachside café for lunch.
Though Brydon and Coogan appear to verbally joust throughout with playful camaraderie, there’s a genuine tension undergirding their exchanges. Coogan doesn’t want to appear jealous about Brydon’s upcoming film project; Brydon makes light of Coogan’s wife holidaying with a younger man. Such ribbing is the conventional sort of bromance ball-busting, but as the movie progresses it becomes increasingly clear that all their pop-culture references and funny tangents and riffs on what each other says is the only way they know how to communicate—that is, by not saying anything sincere at all. The comedic wrapping paper around everything coming out of their mouths is a way out of having to be honest with each other.
That they’re immaturely competitive about it is a brilliantly excoriating comment on the supposed allure of the buddy flick. In a 2001 article Los Angeles Times film critic Patrick Goldstein argued that the buddy flick is the only place “where men can openly express their feelings for each other, even though men on screen today seem less comfortable with each other than ever before.” That’s the ostensible throughline that runs from “Road to Morocco” to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” from “Wayne’s World” to “Sideways.” This genre is where guys talk about their feelings. And “Italy” suggests that grown-ass men do so by acting like childish prats.
That’s what makes the movie such an entertaining farce that stings more than a little bit. Longtime mates often do reach that point in their friendship where it feels like the only thing that binds them together is a shared past, and their conversations might start devolving into superficial chatter over those midlife spoils of upscale drinks and pricey meals. “The Trip to Italy” is a buddy flick that hysterically delivers a pantomime of male friendship, where two dudes fill their time together with laughter and spirits and food and convivial talk—without actually having to say anything to each other at all.