The dynamic duo of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return for another highly entertaining round of travel and food porn in “The Trip to Italy,” a most welcome sequel to 2010’s “The Trip” that follows our intrepid armchair gastronomes on a carb-heavy tour of Italy from northern Piemonte to the sun-drenched Amalfi Coast. Resolving not to fix what wasn’t broken, director Michael Winterbottom once again gives free reign to his stars’ improvisational gifts, juxtaposed with heaping plates of fresh pasta and seafood, reflections on art and literature, and incessant celebrity vocal impressions. Atkins dieters will surely recoil in horror, but that shouldn’t stop this “Trip” (which goes out on the BBC as six 30-minute episodes, and internationally as an edited theatrical feature) from meeting or exceeding its predecessor’s $2 million U.S. gross. Can the inevitable “Trip to France” be far in the offing?
A hangout movie in the purest sense, the first “Trip” threw Coogan and Brydon — cast as slightly exaggerated, odd-couple versions of themselves — together in an SUV and sent them on a culinary odyssey through the north of England, ostensibly to write a series of articles for London’s Observer magazine. Beyond that, what little plot there was — Coogan’s yearning to break into American movies, his strained relationship with his ex-wife and teenage son — served mainly to hold together the movie’s free-form comic digressions and sometimes surprisingly insightful discussions of career, family and the onset of middle age. (Neither “Trip” lists any credited screenwriters.)
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“Italy” sticks to more or less the same template, opening with Coogan in Los Angeles, having wrapped the second (and last) season of the TV series he was offered midway through the first “Trip.” When Brydon rings to say that the Observer is keen on another round of travel pieces, Coogan initially demurs, citing the inability of most sequels to live up to their originals. But soon enough he relents and they’re off, winding through Piemonte in a rented Mini, whose malfunctioning iPod jack leads to one of the film’s best recurring gags: With only a single physical CD in their possession, the duo are forced to spend their entire journey listening (and periodically singing along) to Alanis Morissette’s 1995 “Jagged Little Pill” album.
For much of the way, Coogan and Brydon find themselves following in the footsteps of a couple of British travelers from two centuries before: the poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron (pinch-hitting for the previous film’s Wordsworth and Coleridge). Decamping in Liguria, they pay a visit to the “Bay of Poets,” where Shelley took his fateful last boat ride in July 1822, and wonder what — if anything — people will remember of them 200 years hence. Then, much as Byron and Shelley surely did in their day, they engage in a new round of competitive celebrity impersonations, broadening their celebrated Michael Caine bake-off from the prior film to include the entire cast of “The Dark Knight Rises,” building to a terrific bit in which they imagine a shy assistant director attempting to tell Christian Bale and Tom Hardy to enunciate more clearly. (The Italian setting also offers Brydon copious opportunities to trot out his Al Pacino routine.)
And once again, there are beautiful women in every port, though this time it’s married Rob who gets the girl — a soft-spoken British expat tour guide (Rosie Fellner) — and who immediately feels conflicted about it, though the film itself brings no moral judgment to bear (something that would be unfathomable in an American movie directed by anyone other than Woody Allen).
Much of the pleasure of this latest “Trip” comes from the way Coogan and Brydon interact with their surroundings, using ancient history as rich comic fodder, especially during a visit to the volcanic ruin of Pompeii, where Brydon does a spirited riff on his signature small-man-in-a-box routine, with one of the city’s lava-preserved victims as his straight man. And throughout, Winterbottom nods lovingly to Italy’s rich history as cinematic locale, setting scenes in the street where Gregory Peck’s lovestruck reporter lived in “Roman Holiday,” the Campanian villa where John Huston and Humphrey Bogart shot parts of “Beat the Devil,” the Napoli catacombs visited by Ingrid Bergman’s character in “Voyage to Italy,” and the cliffside Casa Malaparte immortalized by Godard in “Contempt.”
Now and then, Winterbottom nudges the movie in the direction of narrative: Brydon gets offered a role in the new Michael Mann movie, while Coogan continues to work on being a better father to his son. But even when it’s just ambling about, “The Trip to Italy” casts a warm, enveloping spell, letting us ride along with two very funny men as they indulge in haute cuisine, serenely beautiful landscapes, and the pleasure of each other’s company. If food be the music of their lives (along with Ms. Morissette, of course), hopefully Coogan, Brydon and Winterbottom will continue to play on.
Shot quickly with a small crew, the pic nevertheless sports a richer look than the first “Trip,” thanks in no small measure to the stunning natural light and physical grandeur of its locations. Three credited editors have skillfully helped Winterbottom to shape his doubtless voluminous raw footage into a snappy, cohesive whole.