Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon comic routines are cerebral but brilliantly funny, mostly due to the dueling impersonations that are an inevitable part of every meal along their journeys.
The Trip to Italy, directed by Michael Winterbottom. At the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA, and also available on DVD and iTunes
By Glenn Rifkin
Back in the 1940s and 50s, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope turned out a series of “road pictures” that became audience favorites. The famed crooner was an able comic partner for the legendary Hope and, with a dash of the attractive Dorothy Lamour, The Road to Singapore, The Road to Bali, The Road to Hong Kong, et al, set the bar high for all buddy pictures to come.
For Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, the road has morphed into The Trip and given the first two entries in the series, including the just released The Trip to Italy, the genre has added a hilarious new duo to the pantheon. Rather than the frenetic hijinks that Hope and Crosby brought to their pictures, Coogan and Brydon operate without much of a script or plot. Their efforts are cerebral but brilliantly funny, mostly due to the dueling impersonations that are an inevitable part of every meal along their journeys.
The first entry, The Trip, was released in 2011 and featured these two popular British TV stars on a culinary excursion around the north of England. It was a small, easy-going film directed by Michael Winterbottom and featured the pair playing versions of themselves as they visited posh restaurants in gorgeous settings for the sake of a magazine article on fine dining in the north. The premise was a thin but effective vehicle for Coogan and Brydon, both top-shelf imitators, to riff spontaneously over whose impersonation of some well-known celebrity was better. Their attempts to one-up each other’s Michael Caine — carefully dissecting the young Caine versus the older, Batman-era Caine — is side-splitting and I will admit that I’ve been repeating this effort in many a social setting ever since. “She was only sixteen years old!” Coogan shouts at a bemused Brydon. “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” he declares in some of the best Caine since Alfie.
Now, they’ve reunited for yet another journalistic swing around a gorgeous setting, this time the Liguria and Amalfi coasts in Italy. Also directed by Winterbottom, one might expect The Trip to Italy to be a tedious sequel that just recycles the raison d’etre that inspired the first film. But that would be a mistake. Coogan and Brydon are just getting started and if anything, The Trip to Italy is even funnier than its predecessor, fueled by more Brydon, less Coogan, along with reams of new impersonations that just refuse to grow tiresome.
At the heart of the film are two aspiring stars struggling into middle age with the realization that time is passing and their chances at glory are diminishing quickly. Coogan is the more successful of the pair, having established himself in Britain and to some degree in the U.S. Those who follow his work know his brilliance but he has been mostly relegated to small film roles here that hardly scrape the surface of his talent. He gained critical acclaim last year with his starring role alongside Dame Judi Dench in Philomena and he even garnered two Oscar nominations, Best Picture as co-producer and for best adapted screenplay for the film. But it was ultimately Dench’s film and Coogan once again stood just on the edge of stardom. Brydon is a versatile Welshman who has also had a successful run in England on both radio and television. He has starred in several sitcoms but until The Trip, he was unknown in the U.S, a condition essentially unchanged even with his breakthrough performance in that film.
Brydon is the perfect foil for the vain and grouchy Coogan, who reminds us often of his BAFTA awards and Hollywood friendships throughout both Trips. More grounded and seemingly happy in his skin, Brydon’s riotous impersonations of Al Pacino, Richard Burton, Dustin Hoffman, Hugh Grant, Sean Connery and his own signature man-in-a-box little voice steal The Trip to Italy. And while Coogan is the unapologetic womanizer in the first film, it is Brydon who ends up playing against type by bedding the attractive young blonde in the sequel.
The Trip to Italy pays homage to the stormy relationship between romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley just as the first film similarly injected allusions to Wordsworth and Coleridge in the trip through the English countryside. But these are feints toward intellectuality. These films are no more about highbrow resonance than they are about food, the ostensible reason for these road trips. The pair stops to dine at some amazing eateries with awe-inspiring scenery along the journey, but aside from a quick cut of the kitchen where the food is being prepared, each meal is little more than a set for Coogan and Brydon to launch into another routine. On an outdoor patio with a breathtaking seascape for background, Brydon lifts off into an uproarious radio host routine (a figure probably recognizable in Britain but unknown here) in which he grills his guest Coogan mercilessly.
To his credit, Winterbottom stays true to the talky convention he has created. The idea of drumming up farce shenanigans in these otherwise bucolic settings would be a disaster. Any attempt to ratchet this tit-for-tat set-up to a higher plane or add chase sequences and bad guys would bring the whole delicate structure tumbling down.
Another sequel seems pre-ordained, especially with the critical praise being heaped upon The Trip to Italy. It isn’t clear that Coogan and Brydon are up for a Hope/Crosby level run, which lasted for seven pictures over a dozen years, but if these two are up for dinner in Asia or the Middle East or South America, I’d like a reservation.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.