The Trip to Italy
“Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine” – Lord Byron
The death of Robin Williams–who earlier this week took his own life after a decades-long battle with severe depression–has refocused our collective attention on the tragicomic irony of the world’s Pagliaccis, those clowns who jump on the darkness like it’s a live grenade so that the rest of us can live in the light. Of course, this is not to say that all comedians are desperately staving off suicide, but simply–to borrow the title of a hilarious episode of The Simpsons–that there’s always at least a little something to see behind the laughter.
In that light, The Trip to Italy might just be the film we need right now. If 22 Jump Street is still the year’s most insistently self-aware comedy sequel, The Trip to Italy is without question the most painfully so. It’s not just a brilliant piece of work that lucidly traces the thin divide between laughter and crying, it’s also a ruefully bittersweet reminder that the funniest things leave people in tears all the same.
Prolific filmmaker Michael Winterbottom is often regarded as the English Richard Linklater, and for increasingly good reason. Like Linklater, Winterbottom's wildly diverse body of work makes it difficult to identify his signature, he recently made a film that was shot over a number of years in order to observe the passage of time (2012’s Everyday), and he’s perhaps most beloved for a recurring series of films about two people having long conversations as they walk bumble around gorgeous European locales–Linklater has the Before trilogy, and Winterbottom has The Trip.
The first installment tagged along as comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, playing slightly amplified versions of themselves, gallivanted around the English countryside when the latter was hired as a celebrity food writer for The Observer. That premise, however, was little more than a flimsy pretense for its two stars to riff at each other until their scallops got cold, their dueling impressions (“My name is Michael Caine”) and conflicting egos transparently masking a cocktail of professional and existential crises. Coogan was the anguished philandering star, and Brydon the contentedly semi-famous family man. In the sequel, the roles threaten to flip.
The Trip to Italy (which, like its predecessor, first aired as a 3-hour BBC series before being shorn down into a single feature for its American release) doesn’t pick up where the last one left off so much as it drops the same record into a different player. From the very beginning, Winterbottom’s film shrewdly winks at its nature as a follow-up, reveling in the same sense of stagnation that has crippled so many comedy sequels. The Trip to Italy (which is pretty much The Trip, but in Italy!) doesn’t just recycle the most beloved bits from the first installment, it forces the characters to confront their inability to think up new bits. It takes less than 10 minutes for Coogan and Brydon to compulsively slink back into their competing Michael Caine voices, verified comedy gold made that much funnier by their mutual desperation, trading jokes the way ducks spin their feet to stay afloat.
There are enough new asides and impressions to keep things fresh, but the knowing reliance on old gags clarifies the undercurrents of anxiety that spur these men to slip into other people. Brydon and Coogan’s shared obsession with mortality and impermanence are made more urgent by the fact that they’re aging faster than their material. As the overgrown boys wend their way through the Italian isles, retracing the steps of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley in an effort to drift off their legacy, the allure of a mythic life invariably begins to eat away at the pleasures of a decent one. Brydon, whose comic genius is enhanced by a palpable warmth, is offered a part in a Michael Mann film (I wish!) and tempted by sexual opportunity. He's forced to watch his self-aggrandizing cohort become a paragon of virtue by comparison.
Thanks to his unfussy approach and the charisma of his stars, Winterbottom continues to be the unsung hero of his own films. At the very least, the director’s work here is sure to solidify his legacy as the Larry Flynt of food porn. But the subtle modulations of his style deserve far more attention than they demand, Winterbottom’s deft hand gingerly steering this sequel from satire to its final port of call as a cheeky British riff on Eric Rohmer. While The Trip to Italy isn’t quite as consistently hilarious or meaningfully melancholy as the original, few films have ever offered such a vivid glimpse at the fraction of an inch between those two poles, or what pushes someone to step across it.
David Ehrlich is the Editor-at-Large of Little White Lies and a profoundly important freelance film writer. His interests include movies about movies, the New York Rangers, and recycling the same terrible personal bio until he dies. He tweets here.