Movie a Day Blog has always admired the daring of British director Michael Winterbottom in his willingness to mix fact and fiction in his films, from his early work such as WELCOME TO SARAJEVO (1997) to 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (2002). Winterbottom is also content to disappear from his work almost entirely, as he does in THE TRIP TO ITALY (2014) and its predecessor, THE TRIP (2010).
Both of these films star the British actors and comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, the latter less well-known in the U.S., although he did write the effective LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998). As in the first film, the pair drive around a country and eat at fine restaurants, drink to their hearts content, and flirt and more with the women they encounter. Coogan, who is most famous as his British TV host Alan Partridge, became better known to American audiences when paired with Judy Dench in PHILOMENA (2013). He’s more reserved than the rubbery Brydon, but just as adept in vocal imitations and riffs, doing a mean Michael Caine, although Brydon’s version is hard to beat.
Winterbottom might as well not even be the director, the feeling of spontaneity is so dominant in THE TRIP TO ITALY. We are meant to feel that we are literally along for the ride, ensconced in the back seat of the Mini convertible the duo navigate along the windy roads of Italy’s Amalfi coast, only one of the most picturesque spots in the world.
And then there’s the food. TRIP TO ITALY spends a fair amount of time in the kitchens of the various trattorias and ristorantes Coogan and Brydon visit, and you can almost smell the aromas. I was starved for homemade pasta and fresh grilled octopus and squid halfway through the movie, and had there been a decent Italian restaurant open at 11 p.m. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, we would have been there.
The most impressive fact of TRIP TO ITALY the movie is that it is culled from a British TV series that ran over three seasons and 12 episodes. The editing by four editors, supervised by Winterbottom, is incredibly adept, and only a few all-too-British references escape American viewers.
The mystery of TRIP TO ITALY is how two guys in a car or a restaurant can keep us so entertained for more than 100 minutes. Yes, Coogan and Brydon are quick and clever, but they’re also reliably funny, especially their imitations. It’s a fun guessing game figuring out who they’re doing before they reveal their target (or not), and Brydon is the better mimic, although Coogan excels at what seems to be the zinger bon mot. It’s difficult to tell what, if anything is rehearsed, although actors are playing key people in their lives, including Coogan’s son, who joins them for the last leg of the trip.
Brydon goes through a little personal crisis, and Coogan fetches his son out of desperation more than desire, but the real world rarely intrudes on the little private universe Brydon and Coogan create in the Mini Cooper. It’s one where silly voices rule, where the food is always delicious and the wine outstanding. It’s a fantasy made real and amusing, and for most of us, it’s as close as we’ll ever get to a drive along the Mediterranean.