A film that follows two successful working actors as they bicker while eating through a succession of three-star Michelin meals sounds awfully cozy, at best—or, at worst, like a gloried excuse to write off a wonderful first-class vacation. Director Michael Winterbottom and actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon know that, of course, and that self-awareness informs their Trip movies with a dubious energy that generally serves them well. There’s little of the tidy smugness in these films, or in the series that sprang them, that typically characterizes, say, the similarly themed single-camera sitcoms that blossomed in the United States in the wake of The Office. The Trip and The Trip to Italy are authentically uncomfortable because the actors don’t play detachment with, well, detachment. They hint, with occasionally nimble subtlety, at the souls that’re calcifying under the layers of embittered, privileged cheekiness.
The Trip to Italy, which finds Coogan and Brydon on a restaurant tour winding from Liguria to Capri, so as to trace the steps of their favorite transplanted Romantic poets (most prominently Byron and Shelly), is gratifyingly more earnest and searching than The Trip. The first film pivoted on a sense of stable, predictable contrast: Brydon was the family man, and Coogan was the tortured, egotistical, womanizing artist. The second film upsets that applecart nearly to the point of role reversal: Brydon’s family is pointedly unseen, heard only occasionally through painfully indifferent phone calls, while Coogan, by comparison, is damn near his version of cuddly in calls with his estranged son, who eventually joins them on the end of their tour. This shake-up dislodges the first film’s pat moralizing, and leaves the characters, and the viewers, feeling untethered from the status quo of narrative obligation.
The Trip to Italy’s repartee is also refreshingly softer and weirder; the actors’ pressure to come up with “bits” isn’t as pointed as it was in the first film. The celebrated impressions are more explicitly understood this time to be windows into the actors’ insecurities, particularly a moment when Brydon poignantly adopts his “Hugh Grant” for a woman on a Roman seaside. The setting has quite a bit to do with the characters’ newfound vulnerability. In northern England, Brydon and Coogan are just a couple of chaps seemingly enacting a meta British version of Sideways. In Italy, they’re dwarfed by the heartbreaking beauty of the coastlines and the mountains and the art and the opera, all of which recall the mythos of the land as proffered by films such as La Dolce Vita and Contempt, both of which are namedropped here.
Still, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that this premise, as presented, barely makes for a movie (it better serves a series format). The concept is trickier than it initially appears to be, as the filmmakers are attempting to spin drama and comedy from disenchantment. The core of both films is the notion that Coogan and Brydon can’t engage entirely with the enviable luxuries at their disposal, and the melancholy that informs this difficulty is meant to endow the actors with an Every Human stature. Logically, Winterbottom doesn’t allow us to take in the remarkable food or the landscapes with quite the relish that you might expect of a conventional travelogue. The vistas are gorgeous, and appreciated by the camera, but also rendered remote. As in the first film, the food preparation sequences are cut into shards of almost contemptuously off-hand incident. The point is to adopt a cinematic formality that’s complicit with the actors’ self-consciously guilty but still kind of taking-everything-for-granted ennui. Winterbottom, a chameleonic stylist, is able to sell the ironic dejection, but not without essentially stripping the film of a dramatic force that leaves the jokes floating out, center-less, to sea. The Trip to Italy is an improvement on the first film, as the resonances are more affecting and mysterious, but Winterbottom and his gifted actors still haven’t quite solved the riddle of portraying social disconnection in a manner that’s anything other than sporadically involving.