PARK CITY, UTAH: If it ain’t broke, the old saying goes, don’t fix it, and this appears to have been the organizing principle for The Trip to Italy, a film whose title lays its formula out in the simplest possible terms: The Trip, plus Italy. The original 2011 Trip (adapted from a six-episode British television series) found comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon going on an eating tour through Northern England for The Observer; this time, they hit six cities in Italy, in spite of Coogan’s concern that “it feels odd to do something for the second time.” Maybe so, but it doesn’t play that way; under the direction of returning filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, their new Trip is just as funny, sharp, and telling as its predecessor.
As before, the structure is fairly simple: improvised dialogue on the road, improvised dialogue in the restaurants where they dine (intercut with plenty of food-porn close-ups; good God, this movie made me hungry), various misadventures in hotels and out sightseeing. The topics of their conversations vary, though the most memorable tend to revolve around popular culture, usually complimented by the duo’s (frequently dueling) impersonations. The only CD in the car is an old copy of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, so they sing along and deconstruct the lyrics (“Why are you in my house rooting through stuff?”). They wonder when Al Pacino got permanent laryngitis. And following up on the most popular scene in the first film, they again break out their Michael Caine impersonations, leading to a conversation about The Dark Knight Rises and the inaudibility of Christian Bale’s Batman and Tom Hardy’s Bane (“Take off your mask, luv, I can’t understand a word you’re saying!”).
During an audience Q&A after Tuesday morning’s Sundance screening, Winterbottom explained their method for making the films: “There’s an outline — we knew where we were starting, we knew where we were gonna end, but basically, they made it all up.”
“Yeah, there’d be a scene described, where ‘Rob and Steve talk about rubbish,’ ‘Steve and Rob talk about this part of their lives, or Shelley and Byron,’ a couple of suggested lines, and that would be it,” Coogan elaborated. “And Rob and I would start talking, find something, find the scene, mine it, properly exhaust it, and then we’d do something else, we’d try a few different things. And then Michael, when he covered the scene, if he liked something, he’d say, ‘Oh, that’s good, talk about that again.’ Or if Rob or I liked something, we’d say, ‘Oh, we must talk about that again, that was quite funny.'”
That sort of honing and refining of the improvisations only has one drawback: it means they eat each course three times. “So by the time you got to each main course, you’d had three starters,” Brydon explained. “And by the time you got to the first dessert, you’d had three starters and three main courses. So the best acting is when you see the dessert brought over, and we go, ‘Mmmm, that looks great!'”
A significant portion of our enjoyment of the Trip pictures comes from just watching these two talented men play, but there’s more to the movies than that. They’re witty and off-the-cuff on the surface, but there’s a melancholy at their center, a sense (particularly in the rare scenes that they play alone) of insecurities being exposed, and explored. Ultimately, these movies are less about the food or the locations or the funny impressions than they are about a very specific kind of show-business relationship, comprised of equal parts affection, rivalry, and annoyance.
Coogan explained the differences between their real personalities and the personae they present in the films. “Rob doesn’t do voices as often as he does on screen,” he said. “I’m not quite as pretentious or miserable as I am onscreen, and we’re slightly nicer to each other. We did have dinner after we finished shooting, and it would be much more pleasant… and slightly more dull.”
The Trip to Italy is playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival.