There’s been a misapprehension regarding “The Trip to Italy”: The movie’s being sold as a comedy.
True, there are more solid belly laughs here than in a summer of bad Hollywood farces, and a few moments reach a pitch of lunacy that can only be called sublime. But coursing beneath the drollery in this unasked-for-but-welcome sequel to 2010’s “The Trip” is an underground river of melancholy. It concerns the usual suspects: time’s passing, human insignificance, the distances between us and the ones we love. Maybe the only proper response, after all, should be wine, laughter, and Michael Caine impersonations.
The first “Trip” was written and directed by the prolific Michael Winterbottom, and it set Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon — two British comic actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves — on a tour of the cuisine and lodgings of England’s Lake Country. Supposedly because Brydon was penning an article for The Observer, but really so audiences could delight in the pair’s bickering and bad behavior.
“The Trip to Italy” is more of the same, which means it risks being less. The first journey having gone so smashingly, Brydon has now been hired to tour La Bella Italia, in particular the Piedmont area, the Amalfi Coast, Liguria, the isle of Capri, and other sybaritic sights. Once again the acerbic Coogan is called upon to be Lewis to Brydon’s enthusiastic Clark; the vision of these two lanky Brits negotiating their Mini Cooper through Italy’s hairpin turns with only a CD of Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” for company is comedy enough.
“It feels odd doing something for a second time,” Coogan meta-muses, and he’s right. “The Trip to Italy” initially tastes like rather stale potatoes, what with Brydon riffing feebly on names of wine (“Barolo, Barbera, Hanna-Barbera ...”) while ogling a fetching tour guide (Rosie Fellner). Even the cutaways to food, glorious food, being prepared in the kitchens seem like a stalling maneuver.
Yet the heavenly backdrops and sense of timeless antiquity gradually affect the journey, causing the duo to seem both petty and oddly touching. Coogan, the rakish ladies’ man of the last film, is in a career rut; he Skypes his teenage son (Timothy Leach) in rueful late-night bonding sessions. Brydon is still struggling to reach his friend’s level of success. The itinerary roughly follows that of an earlier pair of traveling buddies, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, with stops including the former’s house and the latter’s grave. At one point, Coogan gazes at a print of Byron’s funeral pyre and murmurs to Brydon, “Someday you will lie on a slab and someone will embalm you.” Cheerio, lads!
Shortly after that, of course, Brydon compares a painting of the poet to George Michael during his “Careless Whisper” days. Mortality haunts the edges of “The Trip” and is beaten back time and again by silliness. The banter between the stars ascends to the level of high-end vaudeville, as Brydon twits Coogan about his Hollywood ambitions and Coogan taunts Brydon about being unknown outside Great Britain.
About Coogan’s “Night at the Museum” costar Owen Wilson, Brydon asks, “I know you’ve been a miniature soldier with him, but do you actually hang out?”
Responds Coogan, “We run together on the beach.”
Brydon: “Is he aware you’re running together? Is he running away from you?”
Then there are the impressions, which rise from consciously creaky showbiz nonsense to a last-ditch defense against a cruel world. The ones I could keep track of included the eternal Caine, Tom Hardy, Christian Bale, Tom Jones (in Italian), Anthony Hopkins as Captain Bligh, Hugh Grant quoting Byron, Woody Allen, dueling Marlon Brandos (one deaf), Robert De Niro as Frankenstein, Gore Vidal, Dustin Hoffman as a sex-obsessed Rain Man, and all the men who have played James Bond, George Lazenby very much included.
There’s the slightest air of Beckett to all this, as though Coogan and Brydon were tap-dancing at the edge of a grave. If “The Trip to Italy” begins shakily, it ends with expansive bliss, a father and son reconnecting off the shores of Capri as Gustav Mahler’s art song “Ich Bin Der Welt Abhanden Gekommen (I Am Lost to the World)” sends everyone heart-stoppingly home. Earlier, we’ve toured the petrified corpses at Vesuvius — Brydon providing their comic last thoughts — and the skull-packed catacombs of Naples, where Coogan does the “Alas, poor Yorick” speech from “Hamlet” stunningly straight. “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment?”
To which his traveling companion replies the only way possible: with a Clint Eastwood impression.