Looking over the skulls at the Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples in The Trip to Italy, Steve Coogan begins to quote Hamlet to his companion in travel and comedy, Rob Brydon: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow/ of infinite jest…Where be your gibes now? your/gambols? your songs?’”.
This famous speech could be the thesis statement for both The Trip, Michael Winterbottom’s mostly improvised 2010 film, and its sequel, The Trip to Italy, which had its world premiere at Sundance on Monday. In The Trip, Steve Coogan invited Rob Brydon – both playing a version of themselves – on a gastronomical road trip to the finest restaurants in Northern England, which he planned to review in an article for The Observer. In The Trip to Italy, they reprise their column, this time at Rob’s request, and share another round of side-splittingly funny banter, trade impeccable impressions of actors from Michael Caine to Woody Allen, and provide apt literary references. In both, a melancholy feeling lingers beneath the jokes: these mask their insecurities, preventing the friends from engaging in the deep emotional conversations they need but aren’t equipped for.
In the four years since The Trip, the power balance of the friendship has changed. In the first film, Steve had initially organized the trip for his foodie girlfriend, who then left him for America, which left him inviting the happily married and new father Rob to take her place. In The Trip to Italy, Steve is finally in a good place with his son and career, while Rob is having trouble communicating with his wife who seems to resent everything he does. Although both films are often very, very funny, they are also about loneliness and the limits of friendship: Steve and Rob take solace in their deep bond of respect based in humour, but ultimately, when the trip is over, they must return back to their separate lives and deal with the problems they hoped to escape from.
Where The Trip found Steve flirting with every woman in his path, and even going to bed with some of them, The Trip to Italy often finds him falling asleep alone, but managing a successful relationship with his son who joins them for the last leg of their journey. Rob’s idyllic marriage from The Trip is now in a rough patch; Rob’s affability in The Trip was non-threatening, but in The Trip to Italy, his overt friendliness and eagerness to please everyone around him, especially the women, suggests he may be seeking greater validation.
Both films were commissioned by the BBC as a six-part miniseries, which were each later edited down to a film version. And The Trip to Italy makes more sense as a second season of a television series than as a sequel to the first film. Too many jokes and impressions are re-used from the first film without enough new character development. Although we can tell things have changed in these men’s lives, the trip feels less pivotal for both of them and less urgent than their travels around England, which bore the ghost of Steve’s failed relationship. The characters, by virtue of switching roles, deepen, but the emotional content of this film is lighter than its predecessor: it’s more fun but it leaves less of a lasting impression.