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Film Review: The Trip to Italy

The Trip to Italy (2014; Directed by Michael Winterbottom)

The sequel to The Trip consists of, well, another trip. Following the surprise Stateside middlebrow arthouse success of Michael Winterbottom’s feature-length edit of his BBC2 comedy-drama-travel series starring Britside jacks-of-all-media-trades Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, another season-long vacation and resulting theatrical cut version was an obvious step. Once again accompanying Coogan and Brydon (or rather slightly fictionalized versions of themselves) as they drive through gorgeous landscapes, eat delectable gourmet cuisine, visit historic sites connected with long-dead British poets, and bust each other consistently up, The Trip to Italy transposes this successful formula that never feels formulaic to the sun-baked western coast of the Italian Peninsula.

Brydon, a Welsh television and stage personality known in Britain for his vast array of impersonations, is the initiating force of this particular sojourn, taking over the reins from the slightly more famous Coogan in that regard with a narrative conceit of a series of newspaper columns to be written about their travels. Brydon is also the beneficiary of the majority of the plot developments in The Trip to Italy. Coogan spent their prior trip through the north of England laboriously breaking up with his long-distance girlfriend, bedding photographers and inn employees, and being rewarded for his struggles with a lucrative primetime TV drama gig in the U.S. Meanwhile, Brydon drifted along, content in his marriage and fatherhood and happy to eat, drive, and joke with his buddy Coogan. In Italy, however, it is Brydon who has trouble relating to his family at home, engages in a sexual rendezvous with an attractive sailing expat, and auditions for a high-profile role in a Michael Mann gangster drama (he does a bald-faced Al Pacino impression, and the casting people love it), while Coogan tentatively reconnects with his son.

Incident keeps The Trip to Italy from feeling too casual, but Winterbottom is a smart enough filmmaker to recognize that the casual conversations between these two men is the core appeal of this concoction. Much of the competitive tension between Coogan and Brydon that gave The Trip hints of an edge is gone; they take it easier on each other, and are more comfortable with one another’s company. They’re also a little older and feeling it, as the hints of mortality thrown in their path by the sites associated with Byron and Shelley and their Romantic entourage make the slow march towards death even harder to ignore (when they meet up with Coogan’s son, it’s in a catacomb full of skulls and palpable Oedipal echoes).

But let’s not overlook the busting up, of which there is plenty. A fine dinner at a white-tablecloth restaurant (Winterbottom indulges some food-porn tendencies, with loving shots of chefs crafting their exquisite meals and waiters serving them) rolls into a comedic riff about Michael Caine, Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, and the rest of The Dark Knight Rises (as well as Pacino, Marlon Brando, and I could go on, because they do). Even on holiday, we understand, these funny men can’t ever turn it off.

The Trip to Italy is not just an amusing bourgeois road movie undertaken by a pair of comfortable and talented friends, mind you. It’s a film about the modern middle-aged male’s search for meaning, connection, and purpose in a fast-paced world that leaves them behind even as it affords them extraordinary privilege. If it isn’t as overtly about that as, say, Alexander Payne’s Sideways or Coogan’s own Showtime dark comedy Happyish, it’s much more enjoyable and subtly sophisticated in its approach to the subject. Its touch is light and renewable, where a heavier tread in dealing with the existential angst of wealthy, aging white men would have demanded criticism and even dismissal.

There’s a mild ironic reflection in the journey of Coogan and Brydon when compared to the Romantic quest for truth of exiled Lord Byron that Winterbottom is slyly aware of, for certain. But an ironic contrast between the middle-aged masculine crisis and another more aggressive strain of disaffection provides The Trip to Italy with its most memorable and strangely resonant moments. Coogan shoots down Brydon’s well-laid plans for a driving soundtrack of Welsh music (most likely to spare himself interminable Tom Jones impersonations), but proves more tolerant of another proposed musical selection: Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. Cruising along winding Italian roads in a Mini, singing along to Alanis’ passionate sonic diary entries of encyclopedic angst like “Hand in My Pocket” and “All I Really Want”, these creative, likable, funny British men find a weird form of universal catharsis by contextualizing their uncertainty and anxiety in comparison to a classic of overdramatic existential disquiet. Things aren’t really so bad as all that, for these guys or for anyone else, The Trip to Italy comes around to admitting along the way.

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Categories: Film, Reviews, Travel
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