Hollywood’s formula for sequels is pretty straightforward: 1) Figure out what worked in the original. 2) Do it more. A lot more. So much more that the audience starts to feel bludgeoned instead of entertained by whatever that winning component is.
It’s fitting, then, that the art house–geared The Trip to Italy—Michael Winterbottom’s follow-up to 2010’s wry Steve Coogan/Rob Brydon showcase The Trip—kicks off with a wink. As in the first film, Steve and Rob, characters who are lightly fictionalized versions of the improvising actors, are again tasked with the assignment to take a short culinary tour, this time throughout the beautiful Boot. But Winterbottom and his players want you to know that they know the eye-roll potential of another go. “I’m surprised the Observer wants us to do this again,” Steve says. “It’s like second-album syndrome. It’s not going to be as good as the first time.”
And because The Trip became most notable for the pair’s dueling impressions of Michael Caine, Steve also tut-tuts his travel companion when Rob slips in a bit of Tom Jones mimicry while describing his road-trip mixtape. “We’re not going to be doing any impersonations, are we,” Steve says. “Because we talked about that.”
Guess what they’re doing before the film hits the five-minute mark.
For the most part, these impersonations are admittedly quite funny, with the guys’ analysis of the curious registers and shaky verbal clarity in The Dark Knight Rises being a laugh-out-loud highlight. (Sure, you’ve had the same discussion with your friends. Now watch the pros elevate it.) But as Steve and Rob eat one al fresco meal after another…well, the impressions don’t stop until the credits roll. The script, as it were, is so loaded with their vocal twinning of the likes of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando—this is Godfather turf after all—and, yes, Michael Caine that it’s nearly wearisome. Bludgeon-like, in fact, only in dry British style instead of with, say, Michael Bay’s boom-happy pyrotechnics.
Because the nature of this repetition is the subtleties of language and not brain-battering action (it also helps to have crack comic timing), you don’t tune out. Your eyes, however, may wander from the one-upping characters to the film’s exquisite scenery. Dining or roaming seaside as they make their way from Liguria to Capri, Steve and Rob are frequently overshadowed by the lusciousness of each repast’s backdrop. The sun is always shining; the water’s always calm; the hills are gorgeously green. Winterbottom does, of course, include shots of the copious food. But the fare leans too precious to really whet your appetite—here are three strands of stacked linguini, with a Nike swoosh of sauce on the side—whereas Italy itself may rouse your wanderlust.
Naturally, The Trip to Italy can’t stand solely on food, vistas, and mob-movie jokes. Steve and Rob continue to be competitive and ruminate on their careers like in the first film, but now their conversations are tinged with morbidity and a realization that they might just be unhappily going through the motions of their rapidly passing lives. (An unusually somber exchange takes place at a museum displaying plastered Mount Vesuvius victims.) Each is preoccupied with family issues and hurtful mistakes he’s made.
Yet Coogan, whose screen presence tends to be prickly, is nearly giddy by comparison here. Steve cracks up at Rob’s antics—did you even know the actor could smile?—and sings along to, of all artists, Alanis Morissette while driving. (“Hand in My Pocket” may as well be “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”) His altered temperament is refreshing, but also a bit distracting. Perhaps Coogan and Winterbottom wanted to tweak more than the locale this time around. But regardless of its familiarity, The Trip to Italy conquers that second-album syndrome.
The Trip to Italy opens Aug. 29 at E Street Cinema.