The two main characters in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip To Italy, Steve Coogan’s Steve and Rob Brydon’s Rob – roughly modeled off their own personalities – have a pithy exchange early in the film calling attention to the shameless concept of the film itself. It’s a sequel to The Trip, which saw the comedic couple saunter around the northern English Lake County, reciting romantic poetry, trading impressions over five star lunches, and coming to terms with their existential hiccups. The Trip to Italy is, roughly, a carbon copy of the concept. Rob and Steve are now in Italy, in pursuit of the path of more romantic English poets – Keats and Shelley in particular – and coming to terms with themselves and their competing impersonations of actor Michael Caine. The film unfolds over the white-clothed tables of some of the finest restaurants in Italy. The conversation is a meandering mash-up man bickering and improvised comedy. The food porn is unapologetic. And the plot is a tenuous, minimally sketched reprise of the same themes of first film. Which is to say, The Trip to Italy should be strained and tedious, but it’s actually fantastic.
Winterbottom wastes little time setting up his film. Rob has been asked to write another travel article, and after a brief tiff about the tenuousness of such a concept, the two simply take off through Tuscany. At first, we spend most of the time locked into the back-and-forth. Yes, they reprise the Michael Caine impersonations that were the highlight of the first film, but they also stroll through a string of similar comedic situations, including an extended riff on Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s funny, but The Trip to Italy starts getting good when Winterbottom gently steers us into unexpected dramatic territory. Rob hits it off with an attractive British boat guide in a coastal town, and after a one night stand, the seemingly happily married man is thrown into crisis for the rest of the trip. In the final twenty minutes, Winterbottom taps the comedic breaks while he sets up a moving pastiche. Steve’s estranged son comes to visit them in Capri, and Rob vents to a friend about the inner turmoil stirred up by his liaison. As he did with The Trip, Winterbottom’s final scene brings the film to an emotionally charged conclusion, a collision of tumultuous beauty, self-destructive desire, and the suffered worth of unrequited love.