Review: The Trip to Italy (Michael Winterbottom – 2014)

Any music fan will be able to tell you about “second album syndrome”. The dreaded follow-up to the successful debut. The same goes for films. Look no further than The Matrix Reloaded or Speed 2: Cruise Control.  I rest my case. Whilst they didn’t have to handle karate-chopping Hugo Weavings or Willem Dafoe’s exploding golf clubs, messieurs Coogan and Brydon wanted to avoid their second culinary jaunt from being a “damp squib” after the success of their first film, The Trip (2010). Given the setting – much of Italy’s rolling countryside, historic cities and glorious coastline – the improvised impersonations and kind of stinging repartee that can only come between two very good friends, it was hard to think that they would disappoint and thankfully, they haven’t.

Lads on tour. Open-necked shirts, chinos, comfortable shoes and a glass of white. La dolce vita.

The Trip to Italy takes an almost identical recipe to the week-long drive around the wilds of the Lake District; the two comedians hit the road again but this time are on the continent, driving on the right and dodging traffic in la bella Italia. Rob is to critique a further half-dozen luxury hotels and restaurants for The Observer and his pal Steve is again along for the ride. Why was Brydon even asked to do a second set of reviews? Neither of them really know anything about food… But that doesn’t matter, it’s more about the journey than the mouth-watering offerings. 

Following in the footsteps of poets Byron and Shelley, the two contemporary Romantics indulge their minds as well as their stomachs. They do so in order to play a who-knows-more-about-what game of cultural one-upmanship more than for the sharing of knowledge but it remains lighthearted throughout. With nothing strictly scripted for the film, the two men draw on wide-ranging source material for their improvised back and forth and as such the dialogue feels fresh, immediate and accessible.

Driving around Italy in a Mini evokes the obvious Italian Job lines and obligatory Michael Caine impressions which were such a hit in the first film; Christian Bale and Tom Hardy take quite a pounding for their unintelligible mumblings in The Dark Knight Rises and the film references don’t let up from here on out…  Although only a handful of characters appear in Winterbottom’s sequel, the cast list should include Woody Allen, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Clint Eastwood and of course a stuttering, apologetic but awfully charming Hugh Grant.  

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy.

You wouldn’t think it possible, but somehow our road trippers find a link between Lord Byron and Alanis Morisette – both the English poet and Canadian singer appealed to teenage girls – and the latter’s album ‘Jagged Little Pill’ is the only music on offer due to a faulty iPod. An obscure cultural alliance but a funny one nonetheless. Hotels where Bogart, Garbo, Bergman and Hepburn stayed and the shooting locations of Journey to ItalyLe Mépris, Roman Holiday and Beat the Devil make for a star-studded luxuriousness which the former film did not have. 

The only ingredient in the otherwise well-balanced recipe that doesn’t work is the one-night stand that Brydon has with deckhand Lucy (Rosie Fellner). Of all the humour and good nature of the rest of the film this leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth and I didn’t really see what it brought to the table in terms of plot – Brydon channeling his inner Byron? Who knows. An odd choice for the affable family man. Joined for the last day of the trip by son, Joe (Timothy Leach), Coogan seeks redemption and a chance for bettering that relationship, after his return from L.A. 

The Trip to Italy is predictable fare, but heartily funny nonetheless. Its universality also means that although it is a very British film, it will not alienate non-British audiences so fear not people of North America and beyond. Will there be a third “Trip” to another location? I wouldn’t think so. The formula has been tried-and-tested twice but would need to move in a different direction if they were to avoid the ignominy of a Godfather Part III-esque end to the trilogy. And nobody wants that.