Of late, food porn has leapt off the pages of glossy magazines to constitute a movie genre of its own, successfully manifesting just these past few months in Chef and The 100-Foot Journey. Joining them now on the silver screen is Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy, a welcome sequel to 2010’s The Trip, both of them originating as BBC sitcoms edited into feature format.
If you saw The Trip, you pretty much know what you’re in for here. I could recite the whole plot without divulging any spoilers, because nothing that happens is any real surprise – nor indeed eventful whatsoever. Plot is not what these movies are about. They’re opportunities for two gifted comedians, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, to improvise and riff off one another, playing characters who are not-so-loosely based on their own personalities. Both are well-known in Britain but not so much on this side of the Pond, except for the enhanced visibility conferred by Coogan’s portrayal of Martin Sixsmith in last year’s surprise hit Philomena.
The Trip and The Trip to Italy are both a bit like My Dinner with Andre, only with less philosophy, a lot more photogenic food, spectacular scenery breaks in between courses and two Wallace Shawns – or perhaps one full Wallace Shawn (Brydon) and one half-Wally, half-Andre Gregory (Coogan) would be more accurate. Most of the screentime consists of extended conversations over dinner, in which the odd couple, ostensibly on assignment to review high-end restaurants, talk about their middle-aged lives, bicker over which of them is more talented and nearly always devolve into a competition of celebrity impressions.
Both of these comic actors started their careers as impressionists, and both are uncommonly good at it. But Brydon is portrayed as being quite comfortable with that, and with his consistent ability to get the sort of work that the more pretentious Coogan regards as slumming: voiceovers for commercials, cartoons, videogames. And consequently – in the first film, at least – Brydon seems the more content of the two, untempted by the women he meets on this boys’ week out, daily seeking a spot in the wilds of northern England with good enough cellular reception to check in with his wife and new baby.
Coogan, by contrast, sees himself as more of an artiste than his traveling companion, and loses no opportunity to drop a mention of his growing stack of BAFTA awards (ironically, only Brydon of the two has as yet been conferred an MBE by the Queen in real life). But the movie roles that he gets offered tend to be disappointingly minor, and he’s mostly known for his sitcom character Alan Partridge, a narcissistic and shallow sports commentator. He’s also divorced and doesn’t see much of his son. Consequently, movie-Coogan is bitter, spiteful and reflexively competitive with his friend Brydon.
He’s also a compulsive skirt-chaser, with a surprising degree of success at ending the gourmet dinners of his Yorkshire Dales/Lake District tour in the first film with one-night stands (while Brydon wanders around outdoors trying to get some bars on his cellphone). But in the three years that have elapsed by the time Rob and Steve head to Italy, Coogan has not aged well, and the younger women he desires are starting to look straight through him. Meanwhile, Brydon blunders into an unexpectedly enjoyable opportunity for adultery with a deckhand on a sailing trip to a beach resort once home to Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the men’s roles are reversed. Rob starts questioning his commitment to his previously happy marriage, while Steve is suddenly inspired to rescue his son, now 16, from a long boring summer at his Mum’s.
That’s about it, storywise. Watching The Trip to Italy, you will drool over the exquisitely presented meals, want desperately to wander the craggy Ligurian coastline and wonder how to get a gig like that, where your employer pays your extravagant travel and meal expenses. But mostly you will laugh a lot. As the pair set out on their journey, Brydon swears not to lapse into doing impressions constantly, and breaks that promise almost immediately. And in spite of his pose that such low humor is beneath his loftier thespian gifts, Coogan can never resist the temptation to try to one-up his companion’s impressions.
This competitive dynamic inevitably leads to inspired flights of hilarity, many of them taking off where their impressions of the same characters – Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Woody Allen among them – left off in the first film. Their extended riff on Caine as Alfred the butler lecturing Batman will leave you breathless with silliness, and listening to a couple of decidedly goyish Brits channel Allen is a bizarre experience. Truth be told, for all of Coogan’s repeated insistence that his friend isn’t doing so-and-so’s voice right, the less-famous Brydon proves himself the superior impressionist by a hair. His Hugh Grant is so spot-on that the rather homely, acne-scarred Welshman even looks like upper-class prettyboy Grant whenever he’s doing the voice. It’s transcendent.
For these moments, seeing The Trip to Italy is well-worth your time. There are no chases, no fights, no explosions, no shocking plot twists, no high drama. But there are laughs aplenty. And as far as I’m concerned, these blokes can go on making unsurprising sequels, with different scenery each time, for as long as they like.