Three years after the agreeably poky, faux-verite-style road comedy The Trip, actors, comics, mimics, and uneasy mates Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return—or, rather, depart once more—in The Trip to Italy. Last time, Coogan (as “Steve Coogan”) was hired to write a newspaper feature about eating in the north of England, and he brought along Brydon (as “Rob Brydon”) as a last-minute replacement for his girlfriend. Even with the banter and the ludicrously foam-topped cuisine and the incessant impersonations (the classic was their dueling Michael Caines, each progressively more nasal and phlegmy and emphatic), the journey was a melancholy one. The promiscuous Coogan was increasingly swallowed in a fog of lonely self-absorption, while Brydon—his wife and baby in London—extemporized in a void.
In the sequel, they visit Umbria, Rome, and sundry vista-rich locations on the Italian coast, joking early on about how sequels are rarely very good with the obvious exception of The Godfather Part II—an observation that prompts the first of Brydon’s attempts at doing Al Pacino. Coogan has matured but seems, if anything, more depressed, his career in a stall, while Brydon moves to the forefront.
Brydon is very likable in small doses, but this is a big one. He’s a blabber, in this case consumed by the words (and the burial sites) of the Romantic poets, among them his near-namesake, Byron. And he’s beginning to chafe at the demands of his wife, who is none too pleased with his abandonment of her and their child for a holiday in the sun.
The ancient, sublimely morbid settings (particularly the remains of the victims of Pompeii, forever preserved at the moment of death) throw the men’s sense of mortality into even starker relief; Coogan is especially sad that at their age the beautiful young women—he quotes Garrison Keillor—“look right through you.” One girl has, he observes, “a lovely gait. Probably padlocked.” He begins the journey by eschewing wine but is soon imbibing alongside Brydon. It makes him even more sodden.
Director Michael Winterbottom cuts frequently to the kitchens in which their dishes are prepared, but the Italian plates don’t have the delicious absurdity of the ones in Yorkshire. The cutaways are rote gestures—or perhaps they’re to remind us once again that there are hardworking laborers behind each dish consumed by our haut-bourgeois protagonists. Their sense of entitlement is not especially attractive, although, to be fair, it’s not meant to be.
How is the banter. Mezzo-mezzo. When Brydon’s iPod won’t play, the pair listen to Alanis Morrisette, which leads to spirited banter on the subject of high-strung women. (Coogan: “[She’d be] volatile, sexy when you first meet her, but then it’s, ‘Could you just put the lid back on the jars, please?’”) They speculate on whose legs they’d like to eat if their plane crash-landed in the Andes. You’ll be pleased to hear that there is another funny Caine-off, this one pegged to The Dark Knight Rises, with additional good riffs on the subject of Tom Hardy’s unintelligibility. Brydon’s take on Hugh Grant’s lock-jawed ditheriness is peerless, but his Pacino isn’t as good as he thinks it is—and there’s a lot of it.
As befits its settings, The Trip to Italy aims higher than its predecessor—maybe too high—and isn’t as fresh. I enjoyed it, though. One of the shameless pleasures that movies offer is the chance to watch bright people in splendid places doing things (eating sumptuous food, giving in to sexual temptation) that we would love to be doing ourselves; and the dash of literary pretention in the form of quotes from Byron and Shelley (some read in the Welsh tones of Richard Burton) only adds to the savor. In other words: Mangia!
*This is an extended version of an article that appears in the August 11, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.
* The original version of this article incorrectly referred to Rob Brydon as Rob Bryden.