The Trip to Italy is a bit of a minor masterpiece, a film that is riotously funny, almost farcical, and yet dives into some pretty deep philosophical waters. It improves considerably on its predecessor, 2011's The Trip, and manages to be many things: a travelogue, a buddy comedy, a stand-up showcase for the talents of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and an existential exploration of growing older. It may not appeal to everyone, but to me it was the most pleasant surprise of the festival thus far.
Coogan and Brydon star as satirical, slightly skewed versions of themselves; Steve is slightly more neurotic, Rob a bit more insecure. As in the first film, a magazine hires the duo to go on a gastronomic tour, this time in Italy. For a week Steve and Rob drive around in a hired Mini Cooper and sample Italian cuisine and take in the beautiful countryside. Each man brings his own baggage on the trip; Steve hopes to reconnect with his teenage son, while Rob, so faithful to his wife in the first film, casts a wandering eye on the women they come across.
Much of the movie involves Rob and Steve driving through the Italian landscape, eating delicious food in local restaurants and visiting the local haunts of the poet Lord Byron. Throughout the film, director Michael Winterbottom uses an observational style bordering on cinema vérité to capture their adventures, giving the film a documentary feel, which adds to the illusion that these are real people as opposed to fictionalizations of the actors. And they are fully drawn characters, and by the end the audience totally invests in both men.
I can't overemphasize how absolutely hysterical these two men are; I found myself laughing almost consistently throughout most of the running time. A lot of the laughs come from their spot on, unending impersonations, that range from Michael Caine to all the James Bond actors. They are scary good. There's much more to the humor though, which is so brilliantly British. Their relationship walks a tightrope between bromance and frenemies, and the subtle and not so subtle ways that they cut each other down are absolutely riotous and require constant attention because of the quick byplay.
The film would just be entertaining if it wasn't brave enough to delve into more serious territory. Under the humor of both men lies serious insecurity about getting old, being successful and leaving a significant contribution. Their lives are juxtaposed with the lives of Byron and Shelley, and the largely improvised script utilizes poetry to underline their mental conflicts. The film ends rather ambiguously, in a subtle nod to Italian cinema, but is eminently satisfying. The Trip to Italy is one of the best movies I've seen this year.