Sundance London 2014: The Trip to Italy

Christine Jun

Who wouldn’t adore a road trip across La Bella Italia? Munching their mouth-watering way across Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi and Capri to be exact, in the sparkling company of vet comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon?

For those already acquainted with Winterbottom’s largely improvised 2010 film, The Trip—which follows Steve and Rob, or semifictionalized versions thereof, on a restaurant tour around northern England—this is his witty follow-up. In The Trip to Italy, Winterbottom reunites the pair under the pretext of a new culinary voyage, while retracing the steps of the Romantic poets’ Grand Tour of Italy.

Among the endless barrage of Michael Caine imitations, historical anecdotes and personal jibes between the histrionic duo, Winterbottom manages to capture the idyllic Italian landscape and the gastronomic treasures prepared: no small feat. In fact, the spectacular hillsides, ultrablue mediterranean and delightful dishes of homemade pasta often threaten to steal the show, at least visually. One is almost tempted to tell Coogan and Brydon to shut up and eat their primi piatti, while appreciating the gorgeous scenery. At such times, their nonstop self-centred babbling and howling along to Alanis Morissette in their rent-a-car seem perversely incongruous to their gracious environs, if not downright ungrateful and juvenile.

But perhaps that is the point: that Coogan and Brydon, in self-defense, need to keep talking to avoid confronting the reality of loneliness and aging, to stave off their fright of impeding death. Signs of decay and mortality abound in Pompeii; Brydon manages to turn the opportunity into a silly one-sided conversation between himself and the cast of a man buried alive. (He also makes repeated jokes about Coogan ”lying on a slab” while they saunter down a picture-perfect beach.) As a sharp if not poignant contrast to their day schedule, Coogan and Brydon spend their nights alone, mostly reading or soliloquizing, in their respective ultra-luxurious but empty hotel beds.

Under the surface, The Trip to Italy proves to be much more than the expected brilliant banter and interplay between Coogan and Brydon. Though appearing at first as a sort of middle-aged version of The Hangover in which “boys will be boys,” there are constant interruptions—or reality checks—from publicists and spouses calling, the coolly unreturned glances from much younger eye candy.

In between the sidecracks, the film’s quieter moments of self-reflection reveal ruminations on life’s grand universal themes:  friendship, love, sex, death, the balance between family and career. By hunting down Byron and Shelley’s legacy, Coogan and Brydon are forced to reassess their own professional careers and confront their limitations, disappointments, and failings as lovers, partners, and parents. Ironically, while both men manage to find erotic, if not romantic action on their trip, it's happily-married-with-a-baby Brydon that decides to have a dalliance with a much younger blonde.

But it's no coincidence that The Trip to Italy’s plot proves thwarted, if not doomed. Duty and responsibility, in the form of Coogan’s arriving son, quickly swoops in and restores a sense of everyday reality, cutting “the trip” prematurely short—which Coogan not only embraces, but Brydon humbly, surprisingly accepts without protest. Brydon may not be able to live up to his own expectations, but interestingly enough, he does not hesitate to validate the overriding significance (if not commitment required) of family.

It's worth noting that although the range of Coogan and Brydon’s impersonations (as well as their sheer talent and timing in playing off one another) is breathtaking, those unfamiliar with Brit culture (both low and high) may find their riffs frustrating and hard to follow, if not, at times, totally incomprehensible. That said, watch out for the hilarious and brilliantly re-enacted Godfather vendetta scene by the comic pair—en italiano, of course.

Follow Christine on Twitter: @ChristineCocoJ 

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