When The Trip debuted in 2010, it was a surprisingly endearing and authoritative hit, given the premise—two hours of watching British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon drive around eating food and doing impressions of Michael Caine. But the poster hints at the movie’s subtle profundity: Coogan gazing gloomily at the camera while Brydon laughs at the heavens, the pair looking for all the world like the inseparable Greek masks for comedy and tragedy. Coogan was the unhappy, deeply lonely Hollywood success story, while Brydon was the quietly contented family man. At the conclusion of their road trip around the finer eating establishments of northern England, Coogan returned to an empty high-rise apartment with glittering views of London, while Brydon went home to a more modest brick house and the embrace of his wife and child.
The Trip to Italy has no such conclusion, even as it reconstitutes the premise of the first film as best it can, giving Brydon and Coogan the same cushy assignment for the Observer: an all-expenses-paid driving tour of six destinations that are both visually and gastronomically jaw-dropping. Only this time, the distinctions between the two characters—exaggerated versions of their real-life selves—have blurred. Brydon, tired of the affability of his public persona, drinks and carouses on the beach with a blonde expat while Coogan, still melancholy but newly sober, reads Byron in bed and tries to Skype with his son.
As the guys themselves observe in The Trip their journey was inspired by the poetic sensibilities of Wordsworth and Coleridge; here, they’re guided by Byron and especially Shelley, to whom they pay homage when they visit the gorgeous town where he drowned. Once again, director Michael Winterbottom has created a feast for just about all of the senses. In keeping with the indulgent mood, the filmmaker infuses the proceedings with infectiously breezy pacing even when the subjects at hand turn toward the maudlin.
Worries about mortality, artistic impermanence and moral duty lie coiled at the heart of The Trip to Italy, uneasily making their presence felt alongside the hedonistic pleasures that the protagonists are lapping up. The tonal juxtaposition fails only once, in a particularly jarring scene set alongside a mummified body in Pompeii, when one character’s wit pointedly fails him while his mortified friend looks on. The ensuing transition lands less as a profound comment on the transience of life than as troubling tone-deafness.
The Trip to Italy ends with similarly jarring, perfunctory suddenness. But maybe that’s just because we’ve come to enjoy the company of these two annoyingly compulsive one-uppers so improbably much.