The Trip, which began life as a 6-episode BBC series and was subsequently cut down to a feature for festival and home video distribution, was a study in contrasts. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon played lightly fictionalized versions of themselves as two actors constantly swinging between light and dark, friendship and insecurity, comfort and panic. Each one’s success seemed to introduce a note of doubt in the other’s voice as they traveled together to visit a series of restaurants throughout Great Britain. One of the most interesting contrasts happened in the real world: the movie about two men feeling out of touch with the modern world found success with a viral video. A clip of Brydon and Coogan exchanging dueling Michael Caine impressions has received more than 2.8 million views to date, which feels like more people than actually saw The Trip stateside.
That’s the kind of bit that demands repetition, though, which is why we have The Trip to Italy. Once again, Brydon and Coogan tour a number of high-end restaurants and chat aimlessly about career and relationships, but they also trot out another Caine competition over one of the lunches. It’s a funny enough exchange — they jump off from The Italian Job and wind up riffing on The Dark Knight Rises — but it also feels perfunctory and a little embarrassed in a way the original one didn’t. That’s actually the defining emotional mode of the entire film this time: charming but determined, willing itself from punchline to punchline with gritted teeth.
The film version of The Trip to Italy was also cut down from a BBC series, and presumably there’s structure in the series with regard to the assignment and purpose, but the film just speeds ahead with no warning. Brydon and Coogan are on the road again almost seconds after the opening credits, in a move that reflects the film’s uneasiness about its own existence: “Here we go again,” it seems to say. “Might as well just get on with it.” While the first film managed to stand on its own — even truncated, it played as a bittersweet coming-of-middle-age story — the sequel feels far choppier and less sure of itself. At every turn, it feels as if you’re watching excerpts from something larger and, if not more satisfying, at least more cohesive. It’s almost as if director Michael Winterbottom has strung together a series of “best-of” clips, none of which have much force or impact on each other or on the broader story.
Additionally, The Trip to Italy’s insecurity stems to self-referential dialogue and plot points in which Coogan and Brydon obsess over the nature of sequels, deride them as inferior, and so on. These things aren’t necessarily untrue in the abstract — and, ironically, The Trip to Italy does a lot to prove them valid — but they also feel stale when delivered. The postmodern tendency to skewer oneself starts to crumble here and look like whining or false modesty. The men are already playing dramatized versions of themselves; it’s OK to extend that drama to the motivation behind the narrative.
All of which feels like a shame, because when the movie locks in, it’s gorgeously shot and often deft and heartbreaking in its clear-eyed portrayal of two men fighting a losing battle against insecurity, age, and mortality. If The Trip was about its characters coming to terms with their lives, then The Trip to Italy sees them struggling to reconcile with their legacies. They look to Byron and Shelley for inspiration; Byron’s line from Manfred that “sorrow is knowledge” becomes an apt summary for the way the men find themselves trapped by choices between alternate versions of their lives. This job or that one; fidelity or betrayal. Strolling through the sunlit aisles of Pompeii, surrounded by plaster casts of the dead, Brydon says to Coogan, “You will one day lie on a slab. You will. It’s better to accept it.” There are no easy answers or pat endings here, and occasionally the film stumbles into grace. Invariably, though, it wanders off again. As Coogan warns Brydon early on, “It feels odd to do something for the second time.” Like all good advice, though, it falls on deaf ears.