This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, May 2014
There was bound to be a follow-up.
When British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (strictly speaking he’s Welsh, a technicality that definitely adds flavour to his particular brand of hilarity) took a jaunt through the fine restaurants and boutique hotels of the English countryside a few years ago, their non-stop ribbing and mild ribaldry had audiences laughing so much it hurt. Playing slightly hyperbolised versions of themselves, The Trip sent up Coogan’s vanity in the wake of genuine Hollywood success and Brydon’s mildly sycophantic attempts to hold his own against Coogan’s witheringly hilarious put-downs. Quite aside from the whip-smart dialogue being relentlessly funny, there was further pleasure to be gained in watching two talented but insecure grown men behaving the way we might expect they do in real life.
Director Michael Winterbottom had created the film version of The Trip from his six-part television series of the same name, cutting together the best bits into a perfectly satisfactory cinematic narrative. Coogan had just been dumped, so was looking for lust on the moors, while Brydon simpered happily at his wife and new baby down the iPhone each evening. During the day they would tip up at a fine restaurant in some tiny village, enjoy an exquisite meal and engage in impersonation-offs (who does the best Michael Caine, we’re still asking?).
Four years later, the duo has been sent to Italy for more of the same. They travel by rental Mini and hired yacht around the winding streets and stunning coast of Amalfi, pausing to visit the land which inveigled Byron and Shelley and continues to attract gastronomes and literati alike. They quote Romantic poetry and muse on how they’re not Lotharios anymore. However, in the intervening years the celebrities’ statuses have shifted somewhat, and so have their allegiances to family.
But nevermind the incredible food shots and sensational cinematography – you want to know if it’s funny. Heading off inevitable comparisons with the original, early on in the film Coogan says “It’s odd doing something for the second time”, referencing the well-worn notion of “the difficult second album” and the fact that sequels are never as good as the first (at which Brydon inevitably raises The Godfather Part II). But The Trip to Italy isn’t as laugh-out-loud hilarious as its predecessor, whether because this time we go in with expectations fully primed or because the script simply isn’t up there. Interestingly, now it’s Brydon who monopolises the conversation (thank goodness they often dine in a private room), though it’s sweet to note that his monologues are clearly as amusing to Coogan as they are to us.
Nonetheless, there is a very funny Bond-off at a seafront lunch table, and Brydon brings out his Small Man in a Box to enormously clever effect when they visit Pompeii. The soundtrack is happily predictable with its moving operatic arias and soaring orchestral tunes. More like a gently humourous travel programme with two hosts vying for the spotlight, this is still a trip worth taking.