Who would have thunk that The Trip, a movie in which two semi-famous British comedians drive around the Lake District eating fine food and trading dead-on impersonations of Woody Allen, Michael Caine, and Sean Connery, would beget a sequel?
But here, happily, it is: Rob Brydon, celebrated in his homeland for his small-man-trapped-in-a-box routines, and Steve Coogan, who can claim a modicum of international celebrity thanks to Philomena, his Oscar-nominated team-up with Judi Dench, have clambered back into a car (a Mini Cooper convertible this time) for The Trip to Italy.
The scenery - the Amalfi coast, the vineyards of Tuscany, the streets of Rome - is sun-dappled and seductive, steeped in history and heartbreak. The food - hand-rolled pastas, seafood plucked straight from the Ligurian onto the plate - looks heavenly. And the company? Brydon and Coogan, approximating their real selves, quip, quaff, and gab about their show-biz careers, their love lives, their middle-aged pangs of manhood. And of course, they find time to one-up each other with uncanny impressions of everyone from Brando and Pacino in The Godfathers to the various Bonds (Connery again, and Roger Moore, eyebrows arching independently).
Like The Trip, released in theaters stateside in 2010 and aired as a six-part BBC series in the U.K., The Trip to Italy has been directed with documentary-like aplomb by Michael Winterbottom. If the sequel feels a bit too templated (more flirtations with fetching hotel employees, another drop-in from Coogan's personal assistant and a freelance photographer, phone calls to agents and to the wife - Brydon's - back home), in the end, that's all OK. The Trip to Italy doesn't feel entirely new, but there's comfort in familiarity, too. And as Brydon and Coogan note in one discourse, it's the rare sequel (The Godfather: Part II) that's better than its forebear.
But as the two comics wind their way through six days and nights and their reserved tables at posh trattorie (as in the first film, they've been assigned to review these places for a newspaper back home), deeper musings emerge: Because they're treading the same ground that Byron and Shelley trod way back in the early 1800s, some beautiful poetry is recited and some not-slight observations about the messy lives of the Romantics is observed. Among the ruins of Pompeii, with its eerie volcanic entombments, death becomes a subject for consideration.
And yes, there are movie references galore. From The Italian Job (those Mini Coopers) to Roman Holiday (Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Vespa-ing around town), to Contempt (Le Mépris) with Brigitte Bardot in Capri and Beat the Devil with Humphrey Bogart in Ravello, the backdrops for some of Hollywood's most cherished scenes are revisited.
Gastronomy. Geography. Mimicry. Cinema history. As voyeuristic vacations go, The Trip to Italy is a treat.
The Trip to Italy *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Michael Winterbottom. With Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five. EndText