Road to Joy, by Josh Long
Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 The Trip (edited into a feature from the 6 episode BBC series of the same name) followed actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing semi-fictionalized versions of themselves, touring some of the finest restaurants in Northern England. It’s a project full of unexpected choices that deliver perfectly. Like any real food travelogue, there’s plenty to excite the tastebuds. The comedic duo of Coogan and Brydon wavers between hilarious and poignant; there’s riffing and impressions throughout, but between the laughs there are sober explorations of the tension between the two, the difficulties of show business, and exploration of identity and success. This year’s follow-up, The Trip to Italy, is just as funny, just as thoughtful, and just as mouth-watering…if not more so.
The plot of The Trip to Italy very closely follows that of its predecessor. The two actors are sent to experience and write about six restaurants, mostly along the western coast of Italy. In a very loosely plotted movie, we see the two at the table, traveling from town to town, and meeting people along the way. There’s very little in terms of traditional “plot development,” but this is much more of a character piece than anything. To get the obligatory stuff out of the way, the food looks absolutely amazing, and the vistas are to die for. In case you somehow didn’t know it already, this movie can prove to you that Italy is a place for beautiful scenery and equally beautiful cuisine. But while the film is effective as a travelogue, that’s only a side benefit.
Comedically, The Trip to Italy hasn’t lost any of the laughs and sharp wit this team showed in 2010. First there are the impressions. Since this was one of the most memorable aspects of the first film, I was concerned that the sequel might shoehorn them in all over the place, just to give audiences what they want. There are indeed lots of impressions this time around, but they arise organically. The impressions are never a gimmick; they just seem like something these guys do when they hang around together. It’s part of who they are so much that the film would be deficient without them. And they’re always funny – sometimes because they’re spot on, other times because they’re very bad.
Then there’s the inherent comedy built into a road movie. Arguments over what music to listen to (there’s extensive, hilarious arguments about Alanis Morissette – there’s a lot more Jagged Little Pill in this movie than you might expect), or which detours are worth it. Rob’s obsession with Lord Byron gets on Steve’s nerves, until somehow the poet’s life becomes an influence on both of them. The two have a Laurel and Hardy/Martin and Lewis quality that makes their familiarity through bickering oddly comfortable. Much of the dialogue (if not all of it) is improvised, and these two have a quick, witty rapport that makes it a joy to spend time with them.
Even though I loved the sights, loved the food, and loved the comedy, what sticks out the most are the contemplative character moments. There’s a surprising lot about death in the film. Rob and Steve are getting older, in ways it’s hard to ignore. They’re not the playboys they once felt they were, they’re not the “leading men” of entertainment that they once might have been. As much of their tour follows places where Shelley and Byron frequented, they find a kinship with the 18th century ex-pats. This naturally raises comparisons between themselves and the renowned poets. Will Steve and Rob be remembered this way after they’ve died? Are they doing things now that matter enough to be compared with Shelley and Byron? Do they have to compare, or does it even make any difference? These are questions bouncing around in their heads, and affecting all of their actions and interactions.
Steve finds some solace in his family, which is a step forwards from his familial alienation in the previous film. He has clearly made changes in his life to acknowledge how important his family is, how important it is to connect with the people in his life that love him. This is a happy development, especially in lieu of the heartbreaking final moments of The Trip. In contrast, Rob is now dealing with an unexpected distance to his wife and child (an emotional distance perhaps spurring on the physical distance – Rome is a lot farther away from home than Northern England). At the same time, he begins to entertain the idea of an acting opportunity in the US, in a crime drama. The job would take him far from his family (distance again) and would have him playing a serious role, instead the comedic type with which he’s familiar. This throws his self-identity as a comedian and family man into question, leaving him to wonder who he even really is. He’s lead to a rather melancholy conclusion, especially when compared to the new hope in Steve’s life.
That any film can be a feast to the eyes, uproariously funny, and keenly introspective is a triumph. In what could be a silly little film about food, The Trip to Italy is all of the above. It’s one of the rare cases where a sequel is in no way inferior to its precursor.