If you saw the well-received 2011 movie The Trip in which British comedians Rob Bryden and Steve Coogan (who surprised in his straight role as the journalist in Philomena) play themselves on a restaurant tour in northern England—neither one supposedly knowing a thing about haut cuisine—you know what to expect from The Trip to Italy (trailer). Both movies are edited versions of the pair’s television sitcoms, and both were directed by Michael Winterbottom. In Italy, they are doing the restaurant thing and pilgrimaging to places where the Romantic poets lived, died, and are buried.
Some critics prefer the earlier film, but I liked this one at least as well. For one thing, I knew not to feel like I’m on pause, waiting for the plot to start. There isn’t one. Or not much of one. In The Trip, the food scenes involved visiting posh restaurants with hushed, museum-like surroundings serving unbearably pretentious foams and essences and portions that might satisfy a wee fairy. It was funny, but it was more or less a single joke. Still, with these two, mealtime is never a bore. Coogan and Bryden make terrible scenes at every dinner, usually with their dueling impressions. In The Trip, there was a long hilarious sequence of each man’s “definitive” way to do Michael Caine at different ages. In The Trip to Italy, they take on a large cast, and we get The Godfather.
You have to listen closely because the jokes just keep coming, as the two plunge into various socially awkward situations, yet maintain a plausible fiction of two prickly friends on a simple driving tour. But beneath la dolce vita is a strong current of middle-aged angst and, as the movie progresses, an increasingly strong thrum of death—which culminates in visits to Pompeii and the giant ossuary that is Naples’s Fontanelle Cemetery caves. This juxtaposition sneaks up on you and makes their pursuit of life that much richer and more grounded. These aren’t just two overgrown showoffs on an expense account. Thankfully, Winterbottom has a light touch with all this, and you’ll walk away thinking you’ve seen a comedy. Rightly so.
The scenery alone is worth the price of the movie, and the glimpses of the Italian restaurant kitchens and their chefs at work—fantastico! I guarantee you’ll leave the theater wanting to drive right to the nearest restaurant—“how about Italian?” Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 87%.