In 2010 comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon starred in a successful series, The Trip that had the two men travel through England’s Lake District, sampling the local cuisine and indulging in some comedic mugging and celebrity impression contests. The show was edited into a road movie and became a mini-phenom, particularly because of the awesome Michael Caine-off the comics engaged in, hoping to prove who can do the best Michael Caine impersonation. This year, Coogan and Brydon set off to Italy for a similar kind of trip. And like with their first jaunt, personal travails and career concerns add some poignancy to the proceedings.
In the last Trip, Coogan was worried about his career. In the ensuing five years, he’s had a career uptick with a successful string of films and an Oscar nomination for Philomeena. Despite his career success, he’s not completely satisfied with life. He’s nursing a distant, if functional relationship, with his son Joe. Brydon’s seemingly idyllic family life (a wife and a young daughter) doesn’t alleviate his professional concerns: during the film, he’s hoping to land a part in a loud, big-budget American crime drama. In fact, midlife concerns seem to play a major role in the film. Though both men are still attractive, they know that they no longer will turn heads – at one point Coogan points out that young women look at men like them like “benevolent uncles.” For Coogan, this revelation doesn’t seem to be a huge deal, but for Brydon, it’s painful, and he throws himself at a comely British expat who works as a sailor in a gorgeous Italian seaside village. He juggles his attraction with the beauty with late night phone calls with his harried wife and crying baby.
Putting aside these scripted dramas, The Trip to Italy works best when we just get to watch Coogan and Brydon riff with each other. Unfortunately, we get too much of the aforementioned conflict material and when we get to scenes of the two guys just shooting the shit, often they overindulge in their bottomless bag of impressions. Though they are talented (Brydon edges Coogan slightly), it becomes tiring to see Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and Marlon Brando impressions forced on us over and over again. At certain points in the film, the impressions cease to be humorous and start to take on a sad tone – this is especially true in Brydon’s case, who goes through a gallery of celebrity impressions in front of a mirror, while simultaneously berating his chances of scoring his dream role. When unencumbered by the desire to mug, Coogan and Brydon share a funny, familiar, if caustic chemistry. When they are teasing each other, or when they discuss poetry (Shelley comes up repeatedly throughout the film), then the film is a smart and intelligent joy to watch. And though the two guys are pop culture icons (at least in their native UK), they are also incredibly smart and literate, alluding to various great poets, but also taking time to assess the pop poetry of Alanis Morrissette.
And though the second film disappoints, the scenery is eye-melting gorgeous. Pompeii, Rome, and the Amalfi coast are among the picturesque scenery that Coogan and Brydon see while driving around. The Pompeii sequence is sad though – and Brydon’s jokes feel out of place in such a sad and ghoulish tourist attraction. But at its best, The Trip to Italy is a reliable bit of light, escapist entertainment.