There is no one word to describe the relationship between British actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Not even the aggravating portmanteus of the last decade will do the trick: there’s not enough conflict between the two men to call them “frenemies,” and not enough camaraderie to call their relationship a “bromance.” Whatever is the essence of their unusual chemistry, they ought to bottle it and sell it in pharmacies, for their new film The Trip to Italy may well be the funniest film of the year.
The film is a sequel of sorts to 2010’s The Trip, and each film was itself edited together from the footage of a BBC television series of the same name. The gimmick is that Coogan and Brydon are (fictionally) recruited to do restaurant reviews for the Observer newspaper, with each restaurant being a separate episode of the show. Season one was the north of England, season two is a journey across Italy in the footsteps of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley.
The reviews and even the food itself quickly takes a backseat to the two men constantly riffing on midlife crises, each other’s careers, and pop culture in general. The main reason that these films are funny is that they feature Coogan and Brydon – two long-time pros who take the craft of comedy as seriously as Lorne Michaels at a Saturday Night Live audition – trying, and constantly succeeding, to crack each other up. The Trip became a YouTube sensation for its sequence of dueling Michael Caine impressions; there are at least two sequences in The Trip to Italy which are even funnier than that one.
And yet it’s not all played for laughs. Although these are fictionalized versions of Coogan and Brydon, neither man is making a sort of James Franco maneuver where the “real” person is more or less a pastiche of the real person. Coogan’s jabs at Brydon center on the fact that Brydon has never become known in America (true), and Brydon pokes back with the names of British comedians of Coogan’s generation who are more famous in America than Coogan (also true). At some point it’s impossible to determine where the writing ends and the improvisation begins: when Brydon jokes that Coogan never worked with Tom Cruise (when in fact he did, on Tropic Thunder) it seems like he might have made a legitimate mistake and Coogan responded in character.
The only thing that is bigger here than in The Trip is the midlife crisis material. In the first film Coogan was the more uncomfortable of the two men with respect to aging and his career; here, both Coogan and Brydon seem to be struggling. In fact Brydon makes a decision so dark and spectacularly ill-advised that it will briefly call into question what sort of film The Trip to Italy is trying to be. It’s only when director Michael Winterbottom returns to the lovingly filmed food preparation that it’s clear we’re watching a comedy after all.
As in 22 Jump Street earlier this year, The Trip To Italy opens with a joke about how everyone just wants to watch a sequel that is just like the first movie, and then promptly delivers a sequel which is just like the first movie. Also as with 22 Jump Street, the first movie was so funny that there was no real need to mess with the formula. Get two of the funniest men in Britain, feed them lovely meals and let them be themselves: it makes for delightfully breezy entertainment just as much today as it did four years ago.
— Mark Young