The Trip to Italy distinguishes itself as the second comedy of 2014 to aggressively call itself out for its own sequel-hood, and the generally rubbish nature of such things. Its counterpart, the summer’s quite successful 22 Jump Street, chose to have that concept define it with successful results. Michael Winterbottom, in his continuation of 2010’s The Trip, is content with taking a few jabs in its opening scenes and settling down into this new chapter. The references are apt, as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (playing slightly exaggerated versions of themselves) have once again been drafted into service as amateur foodies taking a tour of six eateries, this time in notably more scenic Italy (the rustic charms of northern England notwithstanding). Coogan is pointedly nonplussed about the scenario, failing to see exactly why anyone would want to know what two comedians think about food for a second time, but it is a premise that theoretically has enough teeth for more impressions and wildly improvised dinners to come forth.
It is possible, likely even, that the premise of The Trip is not robust enough to support a proper sequel. How much can Winterbottom truly get out of two comedians eating a few meals together having conversations about nothing in particular, especially considering they have already done it once before? Quite a lot, in fact, as Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon have approached the concept from a broader, more structured angle, and the film is all the better for it. Coogan and Brydon have their excursion planned around the travels of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley when they moved to Italy in the 19th century. This purpose makes their comings and goings feel less random and contrived than The Trip, and gives the two a more cultured base upon which to spin their conversations and stories. There is something indescribably calming and elegant about these two accomplished artists reciting the works of two great poets in staggeringly beautiful locales, and it adds a depth and resonance that gives The Trip to Italy a little something extra in its interstitial moments.
The more structured plot also allows for a greater emphasis on situational character development. While the roles of Coogan and Brydon in their dinners remain largely the same, the events beyond the restaurant are notably fresh. Brydon remains amiable if a little grating in his attempts to get everyone to like him, and Coogan remains aloof and too cool for the room, embarrassed by his companion’s constant outbursts and boorish Al Pacino impersonations. It goes beyond that, however, in flipping the focus of the narrative a bit more toward Brydon than The Trip did. In that first film, Coogan was very much the lead, and the events that took place outside the restaurants were focused on his character flaws and infidelities. Brydon takes the lead in that vein, and seeing him deal with the sort of situations that you would not expect keeps those in-between moments engaging before the boys are cut loose on another poor dining establishment.
At its core, The Trip to Italy will be most immediately judged on its ability to make the audience laugh, and on this metric it succeeds with aplomb. The central restaurant scenes crackle with energy, and while they sometimes tread the same ground that was trod upon in The Trip, the barely contained manic sense of fun shines through. With the viral explosion that was the Michael Caine scene in the first installment, a retread was inevitable, and Coogan and Brydon manage to outdo themselves with a stroll through the wild jungle of accents that was The Dark Knight Rises. Winterbottom keeps the pace rollicking, surely buoyed by hours and hours of improv to cut together, and is never hesitant to cut to the kitchen when a bit might be in danger of running out of steam, returning to the men on a brand new topic. Nothing wears out its welcome; the scenes flow like a river, never slowing or losing momentum.
The Trip to Italy will be remembered for its jokes and its impressions, those wonderfully improvised pieces of comic might under the auspices of amateur restaurant reviews. It will be remembered for those moments of divine breathless laughter when Coogan or Brydon hit the perfect note to make the other howl. But it will also be remembered for those in-between moments that solidify it as a well-rounded experience with heart and ideas beyond the dinner table. There is surprising profundity hiding beneath the surface of this film. Winterbottom and his actors provide the scope of character, the shading and layers of intrigue that ensure The Trip to Italy is not an appetizer, but a main course worthy of not only Coogan and Brydon’s time and conversation, but the audience’s as well.