At the risk of sounding daft, let me emphasize that Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (2010) and The Trip to Italy (opening at FilmScene on Sept. 19), its hilarious sequel, are about trips.
Both The Trip and The Trip to Italy began as brilliant, rambling British sitcoms, and the movies are the best bits of the shows edited into the best order. Insofar as The Trip was more than a showcase for the two main characters, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, to eat over-the-top nouvelle cuisine, recite Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lake District and offer dueling impressions of Michael Caine and ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog, it seemed focus on Coogan: his ego, his broken family, his philandering, his frustrated ambitions. In the end, Brydon happily reunites with his family, while Coogan broods alone in his chic London flat.
The Trip to Italy tilts the narrative in favor of Brydon. This time he is the one to ask Coogan to go on a culinary trip from Liguria to Capri; this time it’s his inner life at the heart of the meandering storyline. As his career takes off, and his family life strains, Brydon strikes up a sexual relationship—utilizing his Hugh Grant impression—with a British ex-pat who runs a sailboat on the Amalfi Coast. In the end, he’s brooding about impossible choices between love and duty, while a renewed Coogan is joyfully swimming with his son.
Sequels rarely live up to the original (this banal truism is transformed by Coogan and Brydon into an occasion for brilliant Godfather impressions). Maybe because it arose from the rhythms of a TV series, The Trip to Italy feels less like a sequel and more like a maturation of The Trip. Just as funny as the original, it seems to know itself better. Plus, you don’t need to see the first to enjoy the second.
The Trip uses Wordsworth and Coleridge as the sublime foils for the silliness of Coogan and Brydon. The Trip to Italy uses Byron (“Only one letter separates us,” Brydon boasts) and Shelley, both of whom were part of the Grand Tour, the traditional trip of upper-crust Europeans through the artistic and historical wonders of Italy. Becoming postmodern grand tourists themselves, Coogan and Brydon intimate something about the value of travel. Though a desire to see the sites and have new experiences is often what gets us on the road, the essence of travel is about chatting with your companions, eating strange foods, ogling locals, getting drunk and finding a bed. As Coogan and Brydon whisk off in their Mini Cooper into the rolling hills of Piedmont, they talk big about putting on some Italian opera but end up listening exclusively to Alanis Morissette.
Yet travel opens wider those little cracks we already have in our souls. Outside our everyday routines, faced with the layers of history, we’re compelled to wonder, as Coogan and Brydon do, about who we really are and what our legacy will be, and that space of wonder puts the possibility of new life into play.
A wonderful scene in The Trip to Italy takes place in Pompeii, as the two friends stand over a lava-petrified corpse in a glass case. Brydon takes the opportunity to do his signature “man-in-the-box” shtick, miraculously shrinking his voice to sound as if it’s emanating from inside the closed container. Though he usually responds to Brydon’s jokiness with one-upmanship or withering putdowns, Coogan simply walks away without a word, disdainful of low humor in the face of horrendous death. Undeterred, Brydon improvises a “conversation” with the petrified corpse, alternating his own voice with his man-in-the-box voice. When Brydon finally walks off, devastating strains of Richard Strauss arise from the silly display, and the camera lingers on the contorted corpses. Somehow humor has humanized them and made their deaths—and ours—freshly profound.
Who knows what such moments do to us? Can an all-too-human encounter with a corpse in Pompeii push us away from—or back to—our families? Does the glittering sunshine off the Amalfi Coast have the power to tip our delicate balance between love and duty?
A big part of The Trip to Italy’s charm is that such questions are answered with a light, deft touch. Like its predecessor, it’s a two-hour ideal trip unto itself—all the friendship, humor, luscious food and transgressive joys of traveling, without the bother of having to sleep in a lumpy bed and sprint to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College. His new book is The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone.