With The Trip to Italy Michael Winterbottom brings us another instalment in his ongoing collection of Steve Coogan/Rob Brydon collaborations – unfortunately this is not The Godfather Part II to The Trip’s Godfather, instead what we’re given is more or less The Trip’s Hangover Part II. The film covers the same ground as its predecessor in a less proficient and less interesting fashion: Coogan and Brydon are no longer at each other’s throats and are now all buddy-buddy, playing caricatures of the caricatures of themselves from the first film. Unfortunately, the only major difference I can see between this series and its Hangover comparison is that I actually enjoyed the Hangover Part II (yes, I’m in that minority).
It’s a shame that Winterbottom makes no attempt to expand upon the exploration of fact and fiction that permeates his body of work, instead opting to retread old ground. His output seems to be marked by docu/narrative hybrids that blend fictional and documentary film making techniques – whether it be the use of unsimulated sex and real concert footage in 9 Songs, a fictional account of the formation and disintegration of a relationship, or the extensive filmic re-enactments of wartime atrocities which are intercut with interviews between Winterbottom and the victims of these government-sanctioned crimes in The Road to Guantanamo – and while this film is no exception, Winterbottom achieves nothing that he hadn’t already in The Trip, making for less of an exploration and more of a rehash.
In a way it would have been nice if Winterbottom had ditched the entire documentary aesthetic altogether for this follow-up, shying away from his regular cold digital cinematography to emphasise the beauty of the Italian landscape. You will find no glossily composited shots like the one used on the poster here, except for maybe in the final scenes, which are still fairly grey. Italy is not a character in the film; it feels lifeless and still, documented rather than explored, which is the opposite of what you want to take out of a travel film. His docu/mocku-mentary intentions are clear, however whether it is to the film’s visual benefit is questionable. That’s not to say the structure of the film is not effective – I enjoy the candidness of Coogan and Brydon’s interactions and the film would definitely lose something if it turned into another oversaturated, Hollywood, “friends going travelling” flick a la Eurotrip or Sex & the City 2, but an attempt to bask in the beauty of the setting rather than Winterbottom’s bland digital aesthetic wouldn’t go astray.
To its detriment, the film literally covers the same themes of the first, obscuring them by switching the roles of Coogan and Brydon. We’re still looking at two men pondering their transition from youth into old(er) age. Last time Coogan cheated on his significant other so this time Brydon cheats on his wife. Last time Coogan’s child was a distant aspect of his life, a symbol of his immature youth and past relationships while Brydon had a fairly mature, fatherly relationship with his newborn child. This time around Brydon’s child is pushed to the side and a more mature Coogan tries to patch up past mistakes by taking on a fatherly role with his teenage son. Both men continue to complain about how they are no longer an object of desire to younger women as they did in the first but this time without self-reflection. The real question: is any of this still interesting considering that the first film was built solely upon on a mixture of this and Michael Caine impersonations (and oh yes, they do more of them too).
That’s not to say there aren’t moments to enjoy here; although you won’t find much humour derived from their clashing personalities, Coogan and Brydon are still very funny together and while some of their improv falls flat, most is amusing – sometimes even laugh out loud hilarious. Of particular note is a scene in which Brydon improvises a BFI lifetime achievement award speech to be given from prison by Brydon on behalf of Coogan after his murder at the hands of Brydon (the improv sometimes runs very deep and it’s in these moments that it’s at its best). As with its predecessor, the landscape and food are given a backseat, which is fine because Coogan and Brydon’s interactions are the best aspect of both features. However, this shouldn’t be an either/or situation; there is no reason that Winterbottom couldn’t have placed slightly more emphasis on the food upon which their trip is based so it had at least some relevance. Having not seen the television series this may have been expanded upon in that format; even still, a few more minutes of that in the theatrical cut would have been nice. What cannot be put down to editing choices, however, is the way in which the Italian landscape is shot. This is not to say that Winterbottom should avoid working within the documentary-esque aesthetic he strives for, it just seems disingenuous to market the film based on the beauty of its locations if they’re not going to be shot in a manner that highlights why we should be interested in the scenery.
Much like The Hangover Part II, I feel like the producers, seeing the success of the first film, decided to chuck a bunch of money at Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon to make another version of the same thing which in this case was, frankly, phoned in. This is unfortunate because everyone in this is capable of much better work. Apart from financial reasons I’m not sure why Winterbottom wouldn’t opt to make a quasi-sequel to The Trip in the same way that the Trip is a quasi-sequel to Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story – there was no need for a second Trip, especially one that covers the same ground as the first, more or less. If you’re looking for more of the same and are okay with the dulling of the aspects that worked in the first film this will be right up your alley, but if you want something more you won’t find it here. The money invested in this project would have been better spent making a different type of docu/mockumentary with the same leads, although considering Winterbottom’s history with Coogan and Brydon that project probably isn’t too far off, and that’s definitely a film worth getting excited about.
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