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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return for "The Trip to Italy," now playing.

"The Trip to Italy" is a welcome holiday from the early fall's flops


Early on, during the first of many drool-worthy repasts throughout "The Trip to Italy," returning stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon – playing faintly fictionalized characters named Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon – begin chatting about sequels. "It feels kind of weird doing something for a second time," Coogan ponders aloud before lamenting the inherently repetitive nature, expectations and diminished returns of sequels (Brydon's predictable response: "The Godfather 2").

Normally, a piece of self-referential dialogue like that is manna from heaven for critics looking for a way to start off their reviews (case in point: this one), quoting that scene before snarkily using it as against the film, probably with a line like, "Even the movie knows a sequel was a bad idea!" or "Couldn't have said it better myself!"

Luckily, that's not the case here with "The Trip to Italy," far from the "Godfather 2" of British comedy sequels but still a worthy follow-up to its hilarious and surprisingly reflective 2010 predecessor "The Trip." Even if things aren't quite as fresh and sharp the second time through, the core – Coogan, Brydon, their combative comedic camaraderie and the countryside – still makes the movie a pleasant diversion.

Repackaged once again from the BBC series of the same name, director Michael Winterbottom ("24 Hour Party People," "A Mighty Heart") redirects his cantankerous comedians from their previous adventure through Northern England to Italy, following in the footsteps of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley across some of Italy's most scenic locales – Rome, Tuscany, Amalfi, Liguria, Pompeii with a final stop in Capri – and most succulent dishes.

Winterbottom's interests, however, lie less in serving up some food and travel porn, and more in his stars' peculiar chummy friendship/rivalry – one defined by constant one-upmanship, thinly veiled (if even veiled at all) stinging jabs and the occasional genuinely friendly chat. Coogan, a movie star still struggling to cash in his British fame and success (five BAFTAs, though he expects an honorary sixth when he eventually dies) in America, is still essentially the pretentious straight man of the duo. Meanwhile, Brydon is constantly in entertainer mode, even if the only audience is himself and the venue is an empty hotel room.

On their own, their lives reverberate with loneliness. Coogan's show is currently on an indefinite hiatus, leaving him a little lost – even more so as he sees and hears about Brydon's career on the continual rise – and he's attempting to connect with his son. Having served as the last film's sad heart, however, he mostly gets a break this time through.

Brydon's life, on the other hand, is put firmly under the microscope over the course of their Italian excursion. On the positive side, he's finally on the border of a potential breakthrough in America, wanted for a supporting role in a Michael Mann film (at least he says it's a Michael Mann film) because, according to his blunt agent, he looks like an accountant and is virtually unknown in America.

Sadness and dissatisfaction, however, quietly haunt the comedian. A fling with a yacht worker (Rosie Feller) threatens to become something more, a problem considering Brydon's busy wife and young child back home, and even though his career seems to be finally taking off, he seems lost and confused. Even his impersonated creations – used when he's alone as a coping mechanism rather than a comedic tool – mock and criticize his abilities.

He's a man quietly uncertain of himself and his next steps, both personally and professionally. And when Coogan recites a cutting poem to him near the end and walks away, the look on Brydon's face is gutted, tragic and devastated. In a movie that could've been a mindless self-indulgent trifle, Brydon puts in a rather great, nuanced performance, hilarity mixed with the hidden, desperate torment of a man adrift.

When the two men are by themselves, realizing their faults and age, loneliness permeates into the film. You get the impression that, for all of their bickering and impersonation battles and eye-rolling, they are the best, most comfortable thing in each other's lives.

Fittingly, they are also the best, most comfortable thing in "The Trip to Italy." Their conversations are still hilarious, bouncing from topics like Alanis Morissette versus Avril Lavigne to Michael Buble (where does Coogan stand on Canadian crooner Michael Buble? "His windpipe.") to the health benefits of eating British Olympian Mo Farah's legs to merely the childishly immature joy of the word "kumquat" – almost all coming complete with impressions as well. And for fans of the original, yes, the dueling Michael Caines make a brief and very welcome appearance.

While they may be mild rivals on screen, Coogan and Brydon have almost unparalleled comedic chemistry together. Their conversations have an incredibly improvisational feel to them, as though the two are truly just chatting and snappily playing off of one another while a camera conveniently sits nearby. Yet the dialogue still has the sharp wit, escalation and creativity of a carefully written screenplay. Their "Dark Knight Rises" chat – possibly the film's high note – grows into a full-on skit that's on par with anything "SNL" has done recently.

Wisely, Winterbottom mostly just lets his stars go tangenting in all sorts of absurd, hilarious and sometimes even thoughtful directions, occasionally mixing in some footage of succulent homemade raviolis and Italian dishes getting cooked up and consumed or the beautiful sun-soaked Italian waterfronts. The movie isn't showy with its vacation porn; much like with his actors, Winterbottom lets them be natural rather than lather on postcard-worthy vistas. But the odds are good you'll still want to book a flight to Capri and nosh some pasta as soon as you leave the theater.

As Coogan himself admits, doing something a second time does tend to come with some diminished returns. More so than in their previous excursion, some of the conversations don't quite hit or go on a bit long with the two bickering over one another (and sometimes Alanis Morissette), trying to outdo – or snidely takedown – each other's previous joke or impression. They can be a bit much, but if anything, Winterbottom's successfully captured the entertaining, exhausting and sometimes sadly desperate reality of life with funny people.



Theaters and showtimes for The Trip to Italy
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