Picture a film where two middle-aged, graying comedians bumble around the idyllic coasts of Italy, engaging in impersonation battles, and scarfing down mouth-watering plates of linguine with red prawns, calamari, and fresh seafood salad. It may seem unlikely, but this is the most romantic movie you will see all year.
That’s thanks to the improvised wiles of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who are back with the sequel to their critically-acclaimed and electrically charming The Trip. The 2010 film, directed by Michael Winterbottom, first took the duo, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, on a food tour through the gray north of England after they’re hired by The Observer to write restaurant reviews to accompany their scallop-filled romp. This time heading to the Italian countryside to review six more restaurants, Coogan and Brydon trek south from Liguria to Capri, taking in sterling ocean views and heaps of Parmigiano. What we’re promised at the beginning of the The Trip to Italy is a beautiful countryside, beautiful wine, beautiful women, and beautiful food. What we’re left with instead is a keen reflection on aging friendship and a look at the ingredients of romance when they’re stripped down and left to stew.
An absurd, amorous pulse beats through the film from the start. “This is the ideal place for a romantic evening,” Brydon says, peering through his travel guidebook as the two wind down a snaking Italian road. “You know I’m not a homosexual, don’t you?” Coogan teases. Brydon quickly fires back, “If romance should occur, we’ll deal with it as it happens.”
And romance does ensue, partly due to the enchanting staples of the trip. Coogan and Brydon are tracing the footsteps of Romantic poets Shelley, Byron, and Keats, rattling off verses through San Fruttuoso and Rome. They stay in awe-inspiring villas and hotels once inhabited by the stars of Hollywood’s golden age. They share languid meals at trattorias by the seaside and sun-drenched sails along the coast. But greater than these elements is the effervescent chemistry — yes, it’s platonic — between Coogan, the pompous and hilarious wit, and his best pal Brydon, the razor-sharp mimic who will stun you with his dead-on Michael Caine.
In the great tradition of Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater films, The Trip to Italy carries itself along on the glee of conversation, a whip-smart tennis match filled with impersonation-offs and ruminations on Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. Coogan and Brydon’s days are filled with jokes that appear as if from thin air: “Where do you stand on Michael Bublé?” Brydon asks Coogan. “On his windpipe.” It’s a waltz Coogan and Brydon have mastered.
The frisson — not unlike one felt on a really good date — buzzes between the comics who weave in-and-out of chats about success (Coogan has more than Brydon, he affirms), classic cinema, family, and death, not without throwing in copious Pacino impressions to color the illuminating, if heavy, talk. In perhaps the most poignant scene of the film, the pair visit a plaster-cast mummy in Pompeii, conjecturing whether anyone cried for him. The dialogue rolls out effortlessly and seemingly improvised, as no-fuss and filling as a plate of spaghetti al pomodoro.
It’s a movie about what conversations you stumble upon while riffing. Director Winterbottom cloaks the film with a natural documentary-like feel. He focuses on push-pull of long-standing relationships, even those filled with minor annoyances and clamoring partners who can’t turn off their Batman mimicry. There is a tension that exists between Coogan and Brydon, part ego and part internal, as the two struggle with what it means to be a man not yet satisfied with his accomplishments, to long for a family, and to miss nights when girls still looked at them.
Not without typical romance itself — Brydon has a dalliance with a comely guide who likes his Hugh Grant voice and Coogan rekindles a spark with a beautiful photographer — the real interplay is not on fidelity and marriage, but between the men themselves. “Come, Quat, it’s time for us to go,” Brydon jokes over the small orange fruit in a delightfully drunken scene. Coogan bursts into genuine laughter. It’s life affirming moments like these where the film catches you leaning in, vowing to keep searching for love because this kind of kinetic human connection is possible.
The Trip to Italy seduces with its rolicking appetite for life. It seems to be saying our romances are only ever as good as our conversations — they’re in weird silences between impressions of Hugh Grant and Al Pacino, in reluctant Alanis Morissette sing-alongs, and times when we’re appreciating our dinner companion’s riffing far beyond the miraculous Sicilian view. As Byron, the great romantic himself, said about the magic of aimlessness: “There is pleasure in the pathless woods.”
The Trip to Italy opens today, August 15th, in New York and LA. You can see the film in NYC at IFC Center (323 Avenue of the Americas), and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (1886 Broadway) and in LA at The Landmark (10850 W Pico Blvd). It’s also available on cable on demand as of August 21st, with inDemand, Cablevision, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner.