[19 August 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It seems like the best of all worlds: getting to travel, professionally, staying at some of the most scenic and inviting destinations along the Italian Riviera. Better still, you get to sample gourmet cuisine every step of the way, from entrees rich in Mediterranean tradition to piles of freshly caught and prepared seafood. The weather is magnificent, the populace beyond friendly, and the views awe-inspiring.
The only problem? You’re saddled with someone as a traveling companion whose a rival at best, a friend in frustrating terms only, and since you’re pushing 50, that so-called “midlife crisis” has turned into nothing more than mere angry aging.
Thus we find British comedians and actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy, following in the footsteps of the famed poets Byron and Shelley (among others) and taking yet another of their TV series edited down to a feature film excursions, again directed (and compiled) by Michael Winterbottom. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, it’s like the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy This is the End filtered through a decidedly British sensibility.
For the most part, we are merely watching two men marvel at each other’s talent, trying (unsuccessfully) to one up each other. On the other hand, just beneath the surface, are two disenchanted egotists who are, perhaps, a single professional or personal set back away from spiraling horribly out of control.
In the original Trip, Coogan was the whining Lothario, riding high on some Hollywood success and taking his opportunities to trade on his fame. Brydon, on the other hand, was a somewhat lesser known celeb trying to prove he was/is his pal’s able equal.
Now, the tables are turned. Coogan has calmed down, trying to wrestle with a career lag and the responsibilities of being a former deadbeat dad to his struggling teenage son. Brydon, a new dad, has seen his fortunes turn. He’s even up for a roll in Michael Mann’s new “techno thriller”. This sets up a rivalry that will play out among gorgeous scenery, obscene food porn (and we aren’t talking the prices here), and a sideways Sideways approach to male malaise.
Yes, the duo break out their patented impressions, this time expanding on the names we’ve seen before. There’s a hilarious moment early on when the pair prey upon Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, offering up an even more emotional Michael Caine, a speech impaired Christian Bale, and at least three different versions of Tom Hardy’s Bane. Along the way, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, and other well known (mostly British) actors are paraded out, the back and forth between the men replacing any real insightful small talk.
Indeed, like a comic who can’t converse without throwing in a punchline at every turn, Brydon and Coogan seem to break out the voice battle whenever they are getting to close to a personal truth or revelation.
While this may seemed like something planned out (remember, Winterbottom has at least four hours of material to work with from the TV series in order to shape his simplified 108 minutes), the truth is that the entire Trip to Italy is filled with such ad-libs and false starts. Coogan and Brydon are reinvesting the so-called buddy comedy with the concept that, sometimes, friendship is not enough.
Even worse, we get the distinct impression that the former, who obviously feels he is much more well known and talented, is beginning to hate his ‘friend’. He can barely tolerate many of his outbursts, and when Brydon has his own inappropriate peccadillo, he can’t wait to look down his nose at him.
Brydon, on the other hand, is the “X” factor here. He sets up the journey (it is he, not Coogan, who is asked to repeat the premise from the original trip), sets its tone (via an ever-present Alanis Morissette CD) and struggles through the separation anxiety of being a new father and the guilt of an accidental philanderer. As his traveling companion smugly sits back and judges, Brydon persona builds in tension and angst.
By the end, when Coogan’s son has shown up and things take a turn for the complicated, we understand what the film has been building towards. If the original
The Trip (2011) was about nothing more than food and friendly competition, The Trip to Italy argues that there’s always something simmering, ready to explode.
In fact, by going meta, by playing versions of themselves that have only a slight connection to reality (Coogan doesn’t have a son, Brydon’s audition is fiction), the actors are given a chance to explore the Hyde to their already known Jekylls. They can be obtuse, arrogant, dull, hyper, faithful, drunken, while highlighting facets of their onscreen persona that a regular documentary would deny them.
In fact, that’s the most important thing to know about The Trip to Italy. This is not Coogan andBrydon we are watching. Again, like This is the End, these are self-made sketches of how the duo thinks the public view them, or maybe, how they wish/hate they view themselves. The back and forth and bickering is not just fuel for humor—it’s a window into their perceived private worlds.
At a certain point, something has to be sacrificed, and in this case, it’s the food. Unlike a show on, say, The Food Network, The Trip to Italy doesn’t illustrate the ins and outs of the various kitchens visited. Instead, we get snippets, scenes of well-trained chefs tossing pasta or grilling lobster in mouthwatering detail, but no actual description of the various foodstuffs.
Also, the focus on famed poets like Shelley and Byron may provide some manner of story arc, but unless you studied English Literature in college (like I did), you won’t find much purpose here. Still, with Coogan and Brydon doing their best to dismantle their humanity and the foibles that come from same, this film is fascinating. That it’s also very funny is the grated cheese on the ravioli course.