In 2010, actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (BBC's "Gavin & Stacey") teamed up with director Michael Winterbottom ("Jude", "24 Hour Party People") to create a show called "The Trip." Steve Coogan, playing a fictionalized version of himself, is asked by the Observer to travel around the British countryside, dine at some of the best restaurants and write reviews about the experience. When his girlfriend backs out at the last minute, he asks his friend Rob Brydon, also fictionalized, to accompany him. As they drive around, they talk about their lives, the television and film industries (both are in the industry, but their fictionalized selves seem to be having a harder time of it) and their relationships. Since both men seem fond of doing impressions, we also get a lot of those.
"The Trip" began as a television series, but Winterbottom edited the series down into a self-contained movie which is what we experienced on this side of the Atlantic. It was a fun romp through the beautiful countryside, with occasional splashes of beautiful looking food and a lot of very funny impressions.
Coogan, Brydon and Winterbottom seem to recognize that this isn't exactly enough to flesh out a film, so we have very brief glimpses into each of the mean's fictionalized lives. I suspect this is the result of editing six half hour shows down into a single 100 minute long film. When these moments do come up, they seem both necessary and superfluous - we need something to keep us interested in the two main characters beyond their riffs on food, life in Britain and Michael Caine impersonations, but the moments are so brief they almost seem to be a distraction. Also, because they belong to the fictionalized Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, they don't seem all that relevant. But "The Trip" is a funny, enjoyable jaunt through the countryside.
Now four years later, they are taking "The Trip to Italy". It is basically the same movie, with the same conversations, dramatic moments and supporting characters, but set in Italy. They drive around in a Mini looking for highly-rated trattorias to have lunch in; they spend a lot of time on the road, this time talking about Alanis Morissette because that is the only CD they have and Rob can't get the iPod to work. As they drive along the windy roads, through the lush countryside, they talk about their lives, their relationships and their work. When they stop to eat, they eat well, enjoying some scrumptious food along the way.
It seems like the attributes for fictional Steve and fictional Rob have been switched. This time, Steve is concerned about his fourteen-year-old son and Rob's eye wanders despite the fact he and his wife have just had a baby.
As they drive and eat, we hear about their work. Each seems to still be struggling a little; Steve has been working on a television show in America called "The Pathologists" and Rob is up for a role in the new Michael Mann film.
Early on Steve reminds Rob that he extracted a promise that they would be doing no impressions on this trip. That is quickly pushed aside because Rob doesn't seem to like silence very much and wants to make his friend laugh. A particular riff on the three lead actors in "The Dark Knight Rises" (Michael Caine, Christian Bale & Tom Hardy) is very funny. These are joined by impressions of Hugh Grant, Al Pacino, more Michael Caine and many others.
The fictionalized family elements seem to be an afterthought. The moments are too brief to register and just seem to interrupt the flow. I suspect these moments were a little more prevalent in the series but due to time restraints, they were cut down. Why include them at all? They do provide some context and give us something to identify with, but these moments are just too minor. Both films would work better if they were even more streamlined and concentrated even more on the two actors and their almost constant riffs.
This summer we have already had two food-gasm-centric films. "Chef", directed by and starring Jon Favreau, will never let me look at a grilled cheese sandwich in the same way again. In "The Hundred-Foot Journey", director Lasse Hallstrom treats us to very indulgent shots of scrumptious food from two different cultures. I was less impressed by Winterbottom's presentation of the food in "Italy". On the first trip, the food looks delicious and we see very quick shots of the preparation of their meals before the plates are brought out and placed in front of Coogan and Brydon. In "Italy", the same method is used, but it seems less impressive somehow. Don't get me wrong, the food looks amazing- but in "Chef" and "Journey", the food made you drool. In "Italy", it just piques your interest. Winterbottom seems to concentrate less energy and time on the food, but the difference is, in actuality, very slight. It just seems like he isn't as interested this time around.
In the beginning of "Italy", Coogan and Brydon make the de riguer self-referential comments about sequels never being as good as the original. And they have a point - "Italy" isn't as good as the original "Trip". It is good, but there is a been-there, done-that feeling about everything and the food isn't as stomach-rumble inducing as other food-centric films. That said, there are some very funny moments, enough to make it worth watching a bargain matinee.