REVIEW: 'The Trip to Italy'

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Comedy sequels are often a tricky proposition. If you made the audience laugh the first time around, how do you keep them laughing in a second film, and still preserve the concept and structure of the first? As we saw in the Hangover films, it’s not enough to simply transplant the previous script into a new location. Funny characters, just like dramatic ones, need to develop over time. And how do you do it without changing what makes the characters so hilarious?

I’m not envious of the challenge, and yet Michael Winterbottom proves in his new film The Trip to Italy that he’s more than able to take it on. He has reunited with British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon for a follow-up to The Trip from 2010, and handily continues everything we loved about the first installment while being unafraid to let his characters grow.

The first Trip follows fictionalized versions of Coogan and Brydon around the Lake District of northern England, as they review a series of elite restaurants for a magazine. Along the way, they trade masterful impressions of actors and other celebrities and get on each other’s nerves, with side-splitting results. Even now, the “Gentlemen, to bed!” exchange remains one of my favourite scenes from recent comedies.

The intriguing aspect of The Trip (which Winterbottom picks up again in the sequel) is how it meditates on the melancholy of getting older. Coogan and Brydon are both middle-aged, and the first film examines how differently the two (fictionalized) men react to it. Coogan is desperate for recognition in America, and while he tries to remain close with his kids, he’s more interested in flirting and sleeping with the various women he encounters on the tour.

Brydon, by comparison, has a wife and a young daughter at home, and lovingly checks in with them each evening. As the first film ends, we’re left with a surprisingly bittersweet juxtaposition of Brydon cuddling with his family and Coogan staring out from his lonely flat. It reminds us that even the happiest travellers have to come home at some point, and “home” has many interpretations.

Brydon and Coogan explore a series of Italian locales, sampling restaurants as they go.

The Trip to Italy uses a similar structure: Coogan and Brydon are invited to do more restaurant reviews, this time in locales like Tuscany, Rome and Capri. They pack their bags into a convertible Mini and begin a tour that follows the adventures of the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley (the first film centred on the haunts of Wordsworth and Coleridge). The dynamic between the leads is the same: Coogan is cynical and self-assured, while Brydon is earnest and sometimes manic. They often annoy and belittle each other, but they share a love of great food and beautiful locations.

The important development this time around is how the story shifts to examine Brydon’s “life”. Previously, he was presented as being the more stable, responsible counterpart to Coogan, but now Brydon is dealing with a wife who doesn’t have much time for him or his celebrity impressions. Feeling ignored and looking to stave off middle age, his eyes begin to wander as Coogan’s did. At the same time, Coogan is working on his relationship with his teenage son, and still eagerly competing with Brydon for success in the American market.

We don’t always find such strong character work (or a willingness to continue narrative from one film to its sequel) in comedies. The reason for this may lie in the films’ origins: each one was first distributed as a BBC miniseries, and later cut down to feature length for theatres. Granted, Winterbottom is forced to throw out some great material, but he keeps the narrative arc – an element that has led to such great television in recent years. The Trip movies aren’t just about two feuding comics – they’re learning about themselves and about getting older, while taking every opportunity to find the humour in the situation.

The important thing about a bittersweet film – and one of the reasons they’re hard to make – is finding the right mix of pain and laughter. The Trip to Italy is packed with great gags that balance out the other emotions, many of which I don’t want to ruin for you. I will say that two of my favourites are a sequence of nautical Anthony Hopkins impressions and an examination of how a Bond villain would use the word “kumquat”.

Even if the Trip movies are your first real introduction to Coogan and Brydon (though they’ve been around for a long time, with lots to show for it), it’s well worth a few hours of your time. Together, the films prove that comedy sequels can be a lot more than face tattoos or a psycho Jennifer Aniston. The Trip to Italy gets three and a half stars out of four.

Three and a Half Stars

What did you think of The Trip to Italy? Was it a worthy successor to the first film? Or did you think it was a missed opportunity? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!