When you think of comics taking their act on the road, you don't typically think of comics, you know, actually renting a Mini and hitting the road. Unless you happen to be director Michael Winterbottom — in which case the resulting film, The Trip, proves the road trip to be a thoroughly inspired idea.
The Trip to Italy is Winterbottom's follow-up to the surprise 2010 hit, in which British humorists Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon played slightly fictionalized versions of themselves taking a culinary tour through the north of England to research a series of articles for London's The Observer magazine. The new film is every bit as loosely structured, dialogue-centered and fall-down funny.
It begins with a deliciously meta exchange between the friends. Informed by Brydon that the publication has asked for another series of reviews — this time of restaurants in six different cities along the Italian coast — Coogan initially hesitates. His qualm? Most sequels don't live up to the original. When reminded of The Godfather: Part II, he scoffs, laughing it off as an oft-cited exception to the rule. The next thing you know, the two men are doing impressions of Brando and Pacino and riffing on The Godfather: Part III, a sequel to prove the rule if there ever was one.
Thankfully, Coogan allows himself to be pulled back in. The duo's itinerary has them starting their high-carb tour of the Mediterranean shoreline in Liguria and working their way down the boot to Sicily and a prospective Pacino-thon.
This summer has been bookended by fine food-centric comedies, with the equally delectable Chef released in May and still playing across much of the country. The cinematography of The Trip to Italy could not be more gorgeous, as you may imagine, and the shots of haute cuisine are beyond mouthwatering.
Not one screenwriter is credited at the end of the film. That's because virtually everything that precedes the closing credits was improvised. As Brydon and Coogan Mini from one heartbreakingly beautiful location to the next, they chew some of the funniest fat in the history of fat-chewing film. Think My Dinner With Monty Python.
Digression follows digression, each more inventive and gut-busting than the last. The friends' back-and-forth on The Dark Knight Rises is an instant classic, as unimprovable a bit as "Who's on first?" or any you might name. It's all you can do not to slide from your seat to the floor as what begins with an impression of Michael Caine at Batman's burial morphs into a business about a terrified assistant director pleading with Tom Hardy's muzzled Bane to enunciate more clearly. Both men are masterful impressionists.
Imagine an American movie whose plot consists entirely of two loquacious buddies driving, dining and digressing ingeniously. (The closest we have to that, I suppose, is Jerry Seinfeld's web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.") Good luck getting that pitch greenlighted. The pair never leaves Italy, yet they're all over the place, their rapid-fire ruminations touching on everything from marriage, children and mortality to Alanis Morissette. Meanwhile, their route roughly mirrors a pilgrimage once made by another pair of celebrity pals named Byron and Shelley.
There isn't a comic-book superhero or CGI effect in the picture's 108 minutes, but each scene achieves that most special effect of all: the shock of the new. You leave feeling restored — renewed by the experience of watching something unlike anything you've watched before. A pretty neat trick for a sequel, and one I'm not sure even The Godfather: Part II pulled off. Here's hoping Winterbottom doesn't wait another four years before cooking up a third course.