The Trip to Italy
Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
US DVD: 23 Dec 2014
UK DVD: 12 May 2014 (full series DVD)
In 2010, director Michael Winterbottom took actors/comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon and filmed a highly improvised, lightly autobiographical TV series for the BBC called The Trip, about a road trip/restaurant tour through Northern England as the subject of a series of articles for The Observer. The six-episode series was edited down into a feature film, also called The Trip, and released in theaters in the United States.
As they say, one good trip deserves another. Winterbottom, Brydon, and Coogan repeated the formula, cutting down a six, 30-minute episode series into a 108-minute film to create The Trip to Italy. As the title suggests, the pair have been transported to Italy, ostensibly to do a series of restaurant reviews for The Observer while following the path of poets Byron and Shelley. As with the original, the reason for the trip provides the thinnest of premises for the film.
Instead of focusing on the subject of the articles—the food and the lives of the poets—The Trip to Italy is mostly about Coogan and Brydon’s conversations along the way. The two play exaggerated versions of themselves, relating to each other as somewhat friends, but mostly friendly co-workers in the same industry. The two actors do what comedians do when they get together: they one-up each other’s stories, trade impressions, become sore and competitive over each other’s successes, get on each other’s nerves, and, ultimately, make each other laugh.
There are wisps of other plot threads—about how they relate to their families, feel about aging, and traverse through their careers—but most of the movie passes without too much incident. And, ultimately, it’s a genial way to pass a couple of hours. In the film, Brydon complains that people find his stage persona “affable”—a hard reputation to live up to in person—but “affable” is the best way to describe the film. It doesn’t require too much thought; audiences just have to sit back and let the jokes wash over them. There’s a teeny bit of literary history, a slight bit of drama, a smattering of food porn, but mostly jokes.
The direction is similarly relaxed. Winterbottom has the confidence to sit back and just let Coogan and Brydon unspool their comedy in front of the camera. He intersperses their conversations with gorgeous scenes of Italian landscapes and images of the restaurants slicing prosciutto, preparing pasta, and pouring wine. His direction isn’t showy or antic, but rather quietly beautiful.
Of course, these are all to be expected from fans of The Trip. The film is always aware that it is a repeat performance. “I’m surprised The Observer wants you to do this again,” Coogan wryly says in the beginning of the movie. “It’s like trying to do a sequel, isn’t it? It’s never going to be as good as the first time.”
Michael Caine impressions, the most celebrated part of the first Trip (videos of Coogan and Brydon’s Caine impressions from the first film went viral on their own), make a return early in the film, as if to denote their obligatory status. The relief is that the Caine impressions, as required as they are, are still really, really funny. Coogan and Brydon figured out how to put a different twist on them and found a way to wring new, unexpected punchlines out of an expected setup.
The same can be said of the rest of the film. It’s obvious there’s going to be lots of impressions, low-key conversations, and jokes at the expense of Brydon and Coogan. Still, even though it lacks the novelty of the first film, it manages to be just as hilarious. Having not seen the full TV series, it’s unclear whether this is because all of the dull parts wound up on the cutting-room floor of if the whole series is consistently funny, but I’m inclined to believe the latter based on the strength of the two lead actors and they way they feed off of each other.
Not seeing the series also makes it hard to know what advantages the DVD of the film version of The Trip to Italy would have over a DVD of the series, apart from the huge caveat that the film version seems to be the only one currently available to U.S. audiences. The DVD comes with no features except close to a half-hour of deleted scenes (which, yes, includes some more Michael Caine). That means that there’s almost the entirety of the series included on the DVD, but not quite all of it, and it’s impossible to watch it all chronologically. Given the choice, it might be preferable just to watch it all in half-hour installments, but complaining about the format wouldn’t be, well, affable.