Belated Film Review: Savouring the Sights, Smells, Courses of ‘The Trip to Italy’

“It’s not like it’s a new town. They’ve had 2,000 years to figure out their traffic system.”

Whenever we North Americans discover something British, we do it late.

And because we do it late, we’re also susceptible to find the sequel before the original. I’ve done it with Snatch, which I saw before Lock, Stock. We all did it with Mr. Bean – it wasn’t a sequel to Blackadder, but to someone 27 like me, it’s the only thing I really know Rowan Atkinson for.

And I did it with A Trip To Italy, which I saw before The Trip. You can figure out which one came first – the shorter title always come first. (Jurassic Park, then Jurassic Park: The Lost WorldMad Max, then Mad Max: Fury Road. You get it.)

I mean, say what you will about how it must suck in England to get every non-blockbuster American movie months after it was released to Hollywood and its radius, but at least they get it in a vacuum. No British person will have a better opportunity to see an American movie before a symmetrical British person – whereas over here, you had to be cultured or into the Indies to have discovered Danny Boyle before Slumdog Millionaire.

Anyway… The Trip To Italy.

It’s fantastic. That sounds cheap. And to simply watch the trailer for the film, you might have thought it would be cheap, too. So many directors, actors, and writers have tried to pull off the same thing – oh look, it’s two funny people just talking and spending time in front of the camera. Reality TV without with the wine-tossing. Yeah, the audience will love that.

But that’s a hard genre to jump into. You need to be clever without declaring yourself so. You need to be self-loathing without self-hating. You need to be funny-sad and then sad-funny. And both Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon – who reprise their roles as sorta-themselves from The Trip – are excellent balancing everything above.

Their self-esteem is low but their confidence couldn’t be higher, as they travel through Italy’s most beautiful towns without fearing the obvious ones – Rome and Pompeii are presented with the same drive-by appeal as Camogli, Pievescola, and San Fruttoso. The subject matter is a little pretentious if not into poetry – the first Trip focused on Brydon and Coogan walking in the steps of literary giants Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and the Italian Trip has them chasing the ghosts of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron.

There are all the impressions, of course, which I realized about five minutes in must have been the focus of the first Trip – Michael Caine, Al Pacino, Michael Parkinson, Roger Moore, and Hugh Grant all get their tributes.

There are jokes about how old each of them are, but delivered with the disdain of someone who thinks while he’s saying the opposite, “But hey, listen, I’m not that old. I’m just fishing for a compliment here.” And there are contrasting trajectories at play here – Coogan is well-known in the States and probably richer and more famous than Brydon, but the tortoise is picking up steam. Brydon receives a job offer to play an accountant in a Michael Mann film, he makes love with – and seriously successfully woos – a pretty English tour guide, and he even has the inside track on an Italian attendant at their hotel.

This bothers Coogan’s character visibly, who’s no doubt used to being the one who’s forced to digest or turn down female attention. And the beautiful part is watching Brydon, who’s so focused on increasing his speed that he doesn’t seem to realize Coogan’s watching him in his rear-view mirror.

And yet, they both couldn’t appear to be better friends – friends who annoy each other, certainly, but they each seem to enjoy being annoyed. After all, if they weren’t annoyed, how could they whine about stuff?

And the real star, as it always is, is Italy. In the few collections of seconds the country’s vistas and scenery interrupt The Trip‘s main characters and their banter, opera music is played over a montage of harbours and served food and sailboat sails.

It’s meant to give some film equivalent to the way destinations often take your real breath away. You know those times when you’re travelling and you’re blown away by what’s in front of your eyes, but you can’t mention it or try to describe it, because then the moment would disappear? It’s the opposite of Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell – the more you clap, the faster it dies.

So the few times Coogan and Brydon stop to smell the roses are the few times we’re allowed to as well. And in those moments, Italy steals the show.

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