One sly moment in THE TRIP TO ITALY takes place in a trattoria in Monforte d'Alba, the first stop for UK celebrities Steve (Coogan) and Rob (Brydon) on their jaunt across Italy. As in 2010's The Trip, where the comedy duo embarked on a restaurant tour of Northern England, the excursion is subsidized by The Observer for a writing assignment.
Over Guinea Fowl and homemade pasta, they weigh their travel reprise against the general quality of movie sequels. The Godfather Part II is inevitably cited as one of the few that equals its predecessor. This prompts Brydon to launch into an impression of Al Pacino, quoting a famous line from The Godfather Part III. Nobody mentions the incongruity.
The unspoken joke is that this is actually Coogan and Brydon's third collaboration with director Michael Winterbottom where they play thinly veiled versions of themselves. In 2005's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, the dueling "co-leads" bickered their way through making the film-within-the-film. In The Trip, Coogan was the star actor carousing his way through personal and professional despondency, Brydon the content husband and father.
The Trip to Italy brings changes in setting, cuisine and perspective. Coogan remains alternately morose and witty, but he has sworn off alcohol—no small sacrifice with Italian dining—and spends his downtime reading Lord Byron in bed and trying to Skype with his (fictional) teenage son. Meanwhile, the still-married Brydon fuels his notorious mimicry with drink, once to woo a young English expat off the beach and into bed.
As Coogan mulls over moving back to England, Brydon and his agent are trying to land a role as a Mafia accountant in a Michael Mann movie. When Brydon gets the part, the pensive reactions of both actors are telling. Brydon is pleased with the achievement but seems apprehensive over the change it portends. Meanwhile, Coogan quietly envies Brydon's burgeoning success—or does he worry for the path his friend is following?
As Coogan and Brydon celebrate life, a sense of encroaching mortality hovers over their travelogue, which traces the footsteps—literally and spiritually—of Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley during the early 1800s. Coogan and Brydon wind up at the catacombs of Rome and the ruins of Pompeii, the same place the struggling spouses visit in Rossellini's Journey to Italy. As Brydon lends muted voice to the encased remains of a Vesuvius victim, Coogan just walks away, momentarily dumbstruck by the futility of existence.
For all of the gastronomy, stunning scenery and plaintive overtones in The Trip to Italy, the constant sardonic riffing between its two leads is at first its strongest and eventually its weakest element. The two friends debate the efficacy of eating Mo Farah's legs if stranded atop the Andes and the pros and cons of Jude Law playing Coogan in his biopic. Dueling impressions of a young Michael Caine segue into ones of a weepy Caine in The Dark Knight Rises.
A rented Mini Cooper cues up references to The Italian Job. Avril Lavigne is labeled "a young person's Alanis Morissette" and then Jagged Little Pill is cranked as the pronunciation of "Alanis" is debated. While sailing in the Gulf of Spezia, where Shelley drowned, Brydon launches into an obscure but humorous imitation of Anthony Hopkins' William Bligh in The Bounty.
And so goes this mostly sumptuous Brit-wit feast. But by the umpteenth time that Brydon gorges the audience on Pacino, Hugh Grant or Robert DeNiro, the shtick goes stale. What starts as a comedians' vehicle stalls out, but Winterbottom still manages to guide this trip to its poignant destination.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mammal trammels."