They're back, and they're still doing Michael Caine impressions.
In the picaresque 2010 comedy The Trip, British actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon toured England's Lake District. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, they ate fancy meals and engaged in very funny, apparently improvised conversations.
There is more of the same in The Trip to Italy, a rewarding sequel that reunites the pair with director Michael Winterbottom, and that likewise has been edited down from a BBC television series. The plot, such as it is, sees Steve and Rob taking on a newspaper assignment similar to the first film's. They are to travel around Italy and eat beautiful food in various gorgeous settings. "Neither of us knows anything about food," Steve notes, as he devours one of a series of multi-course extravaganzas. Along the way, there is some family drama, and an indiscretion. There is a job offer.
Mainly there is a lot of amusing talk. As the men dine, they banter unceasingly. They do a lot of celebrity impersonations, from Humphrey Bogart and Christian Bale to Pierce Brosnan and Gore Vidal. Appropriately, given the setting, there is mockery of Italian-American actors like Al Pacino. Rob is a more energetic and resourceful impressionist than Steve, but I declare Steve's the better take on Robert De Niro. You may disagree. Much of the film's pleasure derives from these largely mean-spirited impressions. I get the sense that when these not-Ã¼ber-famous actors spoof globally acclaimed performers like De Niro, they do so partly out of bitter professional jealousy.
We learn a lot about the men's anxieties. As they settle in to midlife, they worry about careers, domestic life, sex. From time to time they muse on Byron and Shelley, who famously traveled in Italy. Shelley died there, at age 29, and Rob and Steve visit his grave.
One of the funniest moments arrives when the men tour the volcanic ruins at Pompeii. As they gaze at the petrified remains of a victim preserved under glass, Rob begins speaking in the ancient Roman's voice and develops some wry dialogue. Steve is disturbed by the performance and abruptly walks away. Rob's brief comic disquisition, amid relics of death and calamity, is one of several moments when big themes creep in -- though never in a heavy-handed way.
In Rob and Steve's conversations I recognize a particular kind of male intimacy. They seem to enjoy each other's company, but there is a strong element of one-upmanship. They save some of their harshest barbs for each other. Not all of the gags succeed, and I found some of the conversations suspenseful, as I wondered when the next really big laugh was going to come along. It always did.