Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Movie Review: “The Trip to Italy”

I would estimate that about 80 percent of Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip to Italy” resembles outtakes from another feature—the kind of meandering, off-script banter that usually shows up on home-video supplements or that plays over the credits of more structured comedies. This is not, in any way, an insult: Actors riffing from spontaneous inspiration often yields more comic gold than material that has been rehearsed to the point of exaction, and it helps provide the film its wit, its scruffy immediacy—even its creeping pathos.

Like its forbear, 2010’s “The Trip,” “The Trip to Italy” is a feature cobbled together from scenes of a BBC sitcom of the same name. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, visited upscale restaurants in Northern England in the flagship series, under the auspices of a food-criticism assignment from a newspaper. This time, the premise is exactly the same, only the pair of personalities have been granted access to the finest Italian restaurants and hotels from Liguria to Capri. As Coogan and Brydon converse, usually about culture both popular and esoteric, we occasionally cut away to chefs preparing their delectable four- and five-course meals, and we see the impossible bucolic and verdant countryside fill the widescreen frame around their convertible. Less pleasant acting jobs exist than this enviable culinary traipse.

We have to suspend some disbelief here; Coogan and Brydon are anything but foodies, and the idea that they would be offered a tour of Kansas’ cuisine is ludicrous, let alone the world’s birthplace of ribollita and cotoletta alla Milanese. The plates of steaming heaven are just the smokescreen for the old friends’ epic rambles—the trivia, the folderol, the inside jokes, the impressions of celebrities more A-list than themselves, the backhanded compliments, the outright insults and the occasional insights, all of them reached through consistently unpredictable conversational byways.

It’s these insights that will stick with you beyond the gut-punching humor (though it’s hard to top Coogan’s response to Brydon’s inquiry, “where do you stand on Michael Buble?” “His windpipe”). Their trip to Italy retraces the steps of Romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley during their Italian exiles, with the implicit understanding that Coogan and Brydon are insignificant of heart and mind compared to these titans of English culture. Indeed, both have problems: The Coogan of the film is divorced and pines for a stronger relationship with his son, who lives with his mother. Brydon is unhappily married with a 3-year-old, and he is on a vastly different wavelength than his spouse. We begin to recognize that his constant and hilarious impersonations of actors ranging from Michael Caine to Woody Allen are an avoidant mask for his own insecurities about everything from his marriage to his career.

In the end, that’s what the duo’s trips are really about; certainly they’re not about food or travel. They’re a reprieve from middle-aged malaise, an escape from lives that, as time moves inexorably forward, feel more adrift with every passing year. Often, their discussions wend toward a grotesque finality—what would they look like on a slab, and, if hopelessly abandoned on a frozen mountaintop, would they cannibalize themselves?—or meditations on their legacies. The most affecting scene in the film involves Brydon having a one-way “conversation” with a primitive, petrified human displayed under glass in one of Italy’s rustic tourist enclaves. When this lonely traveler indicates that he envies this mummified creature’s life, we kinda believe him.

“The Trip to Italy” is now playing at Living Room Theaters at FAU in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, and the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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