The Trip to Italy (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Trip to Italy (2014)

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Years ago, prominent British personalities Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan took a trip around England to taste what its many restaurants had to offer.  Now, years later, they've been called back to duty.  Brydon and Coogan reunite to tour Italy, rate its food, and maybe engage in an impersonation or two.  Michael Winterbottom returns to write and direct The Trip to Italy.

Together againRob Brydon, Steve Coogan, and Michael Winterbottom – all a few years older with varying degrees of further success under their belts – reunited for a sequel to their 2010 film The Trip. The success of The Trip surprised me a bit because its primary contribution to the greater cultural conversation seemed to come solely from dueling impersonations of Michael Caine. But when I sat down to watch The Trip I was caught off guard by just how sad and surprisingly introspective Winterbottom and friends made the material. Considering that the sequel seemed to be built around bad tropes (our wacky pair takes on Italy!) I was initially frustrated with The Trip to Italy.

But as The Trip to Italy continued on its sometimes merry, other times dreary, way I realized that Winterbottom has created the perfect British response to Richard Linklater’s Before films. Both stories are about successful and financially independent white characters who make their living primarily through cultural contributions. Each film ties to a different social register but both take a humorous and thoughtful approach to their characters at different points in their life. They’ve both continued to be successful because they embrace entropy and change instead of those sequel tropes I initially fretted about.

Brydon holds most of the dramatic weight in the sequel, masking his disappointment by speaking in any voice but his own.

Brydon holds most of the dramatic weight in The Trip to Italy, masking his disappointment by speaking in any voice but his own.

Brydon and Coogan are the same funny talents they were a few years ago, but occupy a new space in life with different challenges. They’re just as prone to improvised comedy sessions lined with impressions of familiar characters, but their sadness is deeper. Winterbottom tips The Trip to Italy’s hand a bit too broadly with some references to La Dolce Vita, but the sad journey of Brydon and Coogan is a comfortable parallel. Despite their success, they’re more unhappy now than they were when they took their first trip together.

As the emotional core is gradually revealed The Trip to Italy makes good use of Winterbottom’s metatextual excesses. I mean this as a complete compliment as I can scarcely think of another director’s work whose films build on events outside their fictional narratives using “real” people. He takes great joy in toying with our expectations, like an early film battle of impersonations that annoys the patrons around Brydon and Coogan. It’s fun watching Winterbottom write his way into a corner by creating an antagonistic version of what made The Trip so popular and try to think of ways to make Brydon and Coogan’s conversations fresh. The impressions become a way for them to deal with the world without exposing themselves, which makes the moments that they drop or manipulate the façade deeply affecting.

We’re watching actors play heightened versions of themselves through a director who is aware the audience is in on the trick of their performances. This is how The Trip to Italy develops jaw-dropping moments like when “Steve Coogan” drops the act, slips into his dramatic shoes, and recites Hamlet’s speech to the skull of Yorick to his friend Rob Brydon. Yes, it’s a performance, but it’s Coogan as “Coogan” lamenting the seemingly dead career of his friend “Rob Brydon” by dispatching of the metafictional rivalry and speaking to him in purely dramatic terms. It’s a pure distillation of how the lie of art tells the truth, and Brydon shattered expression is the only reasonable response to being mourned before he’s dead. This moment is a reminder of how our shared experiences in culture, a great lie, help us deal with the pain of aging and fading away.

Even with the emotional weight of The Trip, I was not expecting this deep a sentiment from The Trip to Italy. But there’s still plenty of moments for good fun. I loved the way The Trip to Italy builds on the constant one-upmanship between Brydon and Coogan by moving their imitation game to the next level through impersonations of Michael Caine’s cast mates from The Dark Knight Rises. This moment is another smart take on the viral clip from the first film by rendering their versatile voices inert against the less understood villain of that film. There’s also plenty of sharp lines, such as Coogan’s assessment of Jude law as having, “…that really young, bald, look,” or painfully accurate observations like how Brydon is perfect for a role because, “…you’re totally unknown in America, which is what they want.”

The stunning backdrop is kept fresh with lively camera movements.

The stunning backdrop is kept fresh with lively camera movements.

While the twin engines of drama and comedy build from their failures, Winterbottom sets their ongoing conversation against a beautiful backdrop. It’s one thing to put two attractive leads in front of some stunning scenery and let them do their thing. But Winterbottom, along with cinematographer James Clarke, creates visuals every bit as dynamic as the conversation they’re focused on. As emotions rise and fall the camera jumps between helicopter shots of the duo’s vehicle before cutting back to earth for medium shots when they cool off. They even find a way to make those shots of Brydon confronting himself in a mirror feel fresh with slight variations of lighting that make the Brydon and his reflection look different.

That visual sums up The Trip to Italy very well. Even when they’re trying to be honest with themselves, Brydon and Coogan can’t help but reach back to their comedic rivalry and slip into old roles. Winterbottom’s film sometimes wanders a bit too much, especially when it comes to Coogan’s family issues that disappear and reappear suddenly. But that wandering is part of the appeal of The Trip and its sequel. If Brydon and Coogan are ever really happy then they might settle on a destination, and The Trip to Italy shows there’s still plenty of pathos left in their bickering.

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Tail - The Trip to ItalyThe Trip to Italy (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Michael Winterbottom.
Starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan.

Posted by Andrew

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