Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan team up again as traveling companions checking out high-end restaurants in “The Trip to Italy,” the sequel to “The Trip,” a movie so funny it sometimes left me gasping for air. The premise of that first film was that these two comic actors, improvising as themselves, were on assignment from London’s Observer magazine to check out swank eateries along the coast of northern England while retracing the peregrinations of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
The joke was that neither Brydon nor Coogan, uneasy chums and rival actors, knew much of anything about fancy food; plus British cuisine isn’t exactly a foodie hallmark anyway.
Italy is a different story. Inexplicably called upon by the Observer to concoct another restaurant piece, Brydon and Coogan, while retracing the steps this time of Shelley and Byron, are the recipients of more plates of gleaming pasta than you can shake a fork at. The meals look eye-poppingly enticing. Yes folks, this is yet another foodie movie during which you will have to decide if you can wait until afterward to eat.
Michael Winterbottom, who also directed “The Trip,” is known for his avant-garde cinematic ways, but with these films he wisely sets down the camera and for the most part lets the actors play out their improvs. As dish after dish arrives for their delectation, they mumble “grazie” and say almost nothing about the offerings. They are blithely unaware of their good fortune, perhaps because they are playing beleaguered narcissists – in other words, typical actors. They do notice, however, that beautiful women pass them by without a second look. Coogan wearily notes that, if you are a young man and look unhappy, you seem interesting. Look unhappy after 40 and you just seem “grumpy.”
Coogan and Brydon get off to a rough start. Trolling through the countryside in their Mini Cooper, they discover their iPod jack has malfunctioned and the only music they can listen to, endlessly, is a CD of Alanis Morissette’s album “Jagged Little Pill.” Coogan has just come off a TV series in Los Angeles while Brydon is auditioning via Skype for the role of a Mafia accountant in a Michael Mann movie. The audition scene is priceless – he makes Al Pacino seem restrained by comparison.
The Pacino reference is apt, since throughout the movie, as with its predecessor, both actors break into celebrity improvisations at the drop of a fork. Pacino is Brydon’s masterpiece, but between the two of them, they also serve up world-class renditions of Michael Caine in “The Dark Knight,” a stuttery Hugh Grant, Anthony Hopkins as Captain Bligh in “The Bounty,” Roger Moore and Sean Connery as dueling 007s, and many others. The highpoint is a scene in which the men improvise a confrontation between a hapless assistant director on the set of “The Dark Knight Rises” and Tom Hardy’s Bane as he wheezes furiously through his face mask.
If “The Trip to Italy,” which was edited down from six 30-minute episodes originally aired on the BBC, were nothing but riffs such as these, it would still be worth seeing. But, despite the japery, it’s also a movie about middle-aged despondency. It’s a mellower movie than I expected, and I’m grateful for that. Coogan, divorced, is trying to connect with his son. He seems more distracted by vicissitude this time out. It’s not just the food he doesn’t register; the gorgeous scenery along the Amalfi Coast doesn’t quite sink in for him either.
The married Brydon has a casual affair with a lovely British ex-pat yacht crew member (Rosie Fellner), and his dalliance is presented without any moral high dudgeon. This is not a movie that gets unduly worked up over indiscretion. The real love affair here is self-love. But with that love, of course, comes a hefty dose of insecurity – the flip side to all that narcissism. That’s why Brydon and Coogan, fellow actors, can never be true friends, even though their lives travel the same route. And what a route it is. For movie lovers, the locations call up a galaxy of memories: the villa where John Huston shot “Beat the Devil” with Humphrey Bogart and Gina Lollobrigida, the Napoli catacombs Ingrid Bergman explored in Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy,” a street where Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn ambled in “Roman Holiday,” a casa in Capri where Jean-Luc Godard shot “Contempt.”
They also visit the Bay of Poets in Liguria where Shelley took his fateful boat ride and, in a surprisingly moving side trip, Pompeii, where Brydon converses with the remains of a man mummified by molten lava. It’s not quite up there with Hamlet’s “Alas, poor Yorick” soliloquy, but it perfectly expresses the movie’s tone at its best: a kind of nut-brain melancholy. This is a sequel that, for a change, was worth making. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)