[Review] - The Trip To Italy

Courtesy of BBC Films

I've done this one in the opposite order. Last time, when BBC unveiled The Trip, a unique series which followed Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they journeyed through the Lakes dristict of England under the guise of writing reviews of local restaurants, I saw first the series and then the film. Because, to fit the unique concept of a nearly wholly improvised series of conversations between two fictionalized versions of themselves, the BBC chose a wholly unique way of getting the product to market. As a series in the homeland, following the two recognizable personalities across six episodes, and as a film of those edited together for distribution internationally, where Coogan and Brydon are less household names and more foreign eccentricities.

They've done it now again, and I've done it backwards, having seen the film before the series. This time, Coogan and Brydon, off the success of their previous adventure, set out to the kingdom of food, Italy, and quickly settle into retracing the journey of English poets Shelley and Byron. The result, under the returning directorship of Michael Winterbottom, is a warm dish of comfort, occasionally delicious and occasionally awkwardly crunchy, but ultimately filling.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers as preserved as Pompeii.


There are four stars to The Trip To Italy, and they are in turn Brydon, Coogan, the majestic scenery of the Italian landscape, and the food. The last two are presented in such lingering and pornographic detail that you can be forgiven to forget that that there are two fools off camera somewhere about to tickle you again with their banter. Happily, the pornographic detail of Winterbottom's camera ignored Coogan and Brydon, settling for a steady hand and a willingness to let things play out.

For those unfamiliar, this is now the third time this trio of creatives have undertaken this particular format, of improvised marathons of conversation between fictional versions of the popular actors. And after A Cock and Bull Story and The Trip, the art has been honed, and those paying careful attention can tell that every awkward pause and indelicate misstep is as precise as if it had been written.

Winterbottom did not allow the setting to pass him by, and take every opportunity to move the camera away from his stars, to settle it on some approaching coast line some winding road or crumbling ruin. Similarly, does it land on the craftsmanship of the chefs as they prepare a salivating array of Italian dishes, the neglected impetus for the entire adventure. The landscape is as unscripted as the stars, and as with them, it was clearly Winterbottom's intention to simply allow the scenery to speak for itself, as his uses these shots as palette cleansing cutaways between scenes or to cover the deep edits required to trim the six episodes down into under two hours.

As one might expect from a film with essentially no script, there is no plot. Or, there is a basic framework of a plot. And in that basic framework, you can see the structure of a TV series most clearly in the film version. The film and series are a modern day Dinner with Andre, just a series of conversations between two colleagues. They talk, and eat, and that's it. Along the way, Coogan deals with his teenage son's discontent, while Brydon finds some solace in a deepening distance in his own relationships while he vies for a film role. These asides have their moments, in the film occupying very specific and restricted portions of the run-time, corresponding to the episodes in which those plots would be primary. The film does it's best to extract and place those plots which have the most carry over throughout (mostly the family stuff, though that too will suddenly just disappear).

The attention is entirely on the two men, as Brydon eagerly bounds from place to place, gleefully recounting the tragic latter lives of Bryon and Shelley, upon he draws a comparison. And so, as they journey via Mini and eat their hearts out, they follow the trail of the poets, visiting gravestones and historic sites of interest. That, at least, gives the film the framework is requires to allow the men to get to the point of it, which is talk, to each other, at length. About everything, and nothing in particular.

A selling point of the film (in fact, the trailer focuses almost entirely upon it) are both men's talents at impersonation, but that was a aspect well explored in the first film, and Winterbottom wisely moves it back, while not dismissing it entirely. Certainly, highlights of the film are Coogan and Brydon engaging in their own indecipherable version of The Dark Knight Rises, or recounting the progression of the various Bond actors. Instead, the men focus on one another, allowing their (fictional) personalities to shiny through, with Brydon the optimist and Coogan the cynic. They fall into those sorts of conversations that you have with another person when trapped in a car with them, discussing at length a particular song or singer. They commiserate over their age, with the sort of beleaguered acceptance that their egos have been lying to them for years.

The film is extraordinarily casual and incredibly funny, as the two men find each other's soft sots and poke at them. And there are lulls, which does the viewer good. There is no attempt to pad the film with slapstick and gut busters every moment. A particularly funny segment will be followed by an emotional one. A stroll will showcase the wit and intelligence of the en without every feeling the need to "make the moment happen." The whole thing feels like going on vacation with two mates who get along quite well, and you get to tag a long behind. But all that being said, it does feel like, in this current arrangement, the bit has been played out. No doubt there are any number of situations that the duo could have these versions of themselves put in, but what was done in The Trip and what has been done (and done again) in The Trip to Italy strongly suggests that Winterbottom and his cast find a new way to play at being themselves for next time.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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