Dining Duo on the Amalfi Coast
Near the beginning of The Trip to Italy, Steve Coogan tells Rob Brydon that sequels are never as good as their predecessors. In this follow-up to their culinary adventures in The Trip, he’s mulling over taking another restaurant-critiquing excursion with his fellow British comedian, but we all know what his wary advice is implying. Sequel self-awareness was given an opening musical number in Muppets Most Wanted and there was enough of its tongue-in-cheek humor in this summer’s 22 Jump Street for an entire year. Here, luckily, it’s just a hesitant thought.
That’s because Michael Winterbottom’s two films aren’t in competition with each other even if their main characters might be. Before both stories were pared down to film length, the roaming taste testing was a BBC series. And yet the two installments keep a breezy pace without the burdens of a conventional beginning and end, leaving room for more if they so choose, both on their plates and in creative energy. If this ends up becoming a trilogy, it will just be a television series with a few years between each episode.
Unlike The Trip, which scanned the best food of the British highlands, the London Observer has asked Brydon—instead of Coogan– to write a collection of restaurant reviews throughout Italy. Coogan, like the rest of us, can’t resist the prospect of tasting a variety of pastas while slumbering with panoramic seascape views, and decides to tag along. It is a romantic notion to sweep away reality for a few weeks in order to sip wine and get fat on ravioli. Winterbottom, and his two actors-turned-critics, appears to thrive on our jealousy.
They make pit stops along the coast in their Mini Cooper, playing Alanis Morissette, and rekindling their greatest hits album of impressions. Brydon immediately picks up where he left off, embodying Michael Caine and luring Coogan in for a full revival of The Dark Knight Rises, featuring the incomprehensible stylings of Tom Hardy’s Bane. These seamlessly, if not forcedly, transition into Al Pacino, Roger Moore, and a brilliantly sputtering Hugh Grant. It’s as though these two have made it their mission to combine high and pop culture, sarcastically responding to the lyrics of “Hand in my Pocket” between the crowded Roman streets.
This time Coogan, on the heels of his American television show getting cancelled, has mellowed. With every change in Brydon’s false dialects, Coogan is more willing to match his partner’s sometimes inappropriate, always silly ruminations about life. Part of the reason is a shared sense of regret. Like before, their conversations drift from movie references to quoting Byron, who also spent time alone in Italy, and whose poetry—as well as visiting Mt. Vesuvius sarcophaguses in a museum– provides a contextual backdrop for two drifting, aging men. The voices and impersonations are just as funny as they are sobering facades for their midlife anxieties and personal doubts.
Some of this is sexual, like when the two share a drink next to a table of young women. “We’re not a threat,” Coogan says, pondering if their older selves could still ever be attractive to a younger generation of beach-bodied blondes. He turns around to the ocean. “Nature never disappoints. No rejection,” he laments. Sometimes these “sexistential” worries end up as clever puns about silly worries. For example: an attractive woman walks by the two, stopping their dinner conversation.
“She’s got a lovely gait,” says Coogan. “Probably padlocked,” responds Brydon.
The movie continues on that wavelength, a combination of pain and levity that occasionally transcends the trappings of their projected theories. Brydon finds himself toying around with infidelity, unable to connect with his wife, who is always busy caring for their child when he calls. Coogan exudes remorse, trying to connect with his teenage son Joe (Timothy Leach) while stumbling with both Skype and the ability to elevate their relationship past a few structured questions and answers. Winterbottom, without any flashy camera work, doesn’t provide an easy out or any real solution, even when Joe arrives late into the movie. He exposes his characters’ flaws just as much as their comedic sensibilities.
Of course, throughout this breezy then turbulent journey, there is really no writing or note taking with each bite. As much as touring the country is supposed to be a job, it’s really a vacation from these troubled domestic lifestyles with which they seem perpetually burdened. Some of the internal jostling re-emerges when Brydon is offered an audition for a gangster film by Michael Mann. Coogan incredulously interrogates him. “The Michael Mann?” “You’re playing an American?”
The tension, however, doesn’t boil into snide remarks for the rest of their travels. Between postcard sunsets and revisiting British actor voices, these men would rather bathe in their paradise then wade in their peripheral stench. It’s less risky to present, more flattering to watch. It’s as though Winterbottom has taken a Charlie Chaplin quote for advice, continually cutting to the flavors of the kitchen and city in between the comedic conversations. “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”