Michael Winterbottom’s indie film “The Trip to Italy” puts you in two minds. You’re laughing awfully hard much of the time and certainly are in awe of the splendid meals and lavish suites its two stars enjoy during their sojourn in Italy. Then again, you’re rather peeved they didn’t invite you along.
Is this fair? Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, more or less playing Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, stay in luxury digs from the top of Italy’s boot to the bottom while chowing down on the finest cuisine the country can offer. And you get to watch!
The compensating factor is that the two gents are hilarious conversationists even at the remove of watching them in a movie theater. There is a factious tone to much of their chatter, a kind of one-upmanship where each tries to perform the better impersonation of well-known actors —both are gifted mimics —or prove his is the greater talent and career in show business.
This “Trip” is actually a sequel. The two British entertainers first appeared together in Winterbottom’s 2005 “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” where they quarreled over their relative importance to the production.
Then Winterbottom took them on his 2010 “The Trip,” which imagined the Observer newspaper had assigned Coogan to do an article about dining in the north of England. When Coogan’s girlfriend bailed, he recruited old pal Brydon to leave his wife and child to accompany him.
So from the chilly though lovely landscapes of northern Britain, the new movie offers the warmth, sights and sounds of raucous Italy. It starts off at the Trattoria della Posta in Piemonte and continues on through Tuscany and Rome winding up in Sicily, presumable so Brydon can do his “Godfather”-inspired Al Pacino impersonation.
The film feels like a documentary — no, make that an erudite reality show — but isn’t really. While no screenplay is credited, clearly fictional interludes intrude, one having to do with Brydon’s sleeping with an English woman working in Italy and another where Coogan rescues his son from boredom by bringing him into the latter stages of this culinary journey.
How much of the “Trip” is scripted and how much ad-libbed is hard to tell. Probably a bit of both — you can imagine Winterbottom saying, “Guys, here’s the set-up and you take it from there.”
Neither man seems the least bit equipped to review restaurants or write travel stories. To compensate, Winterbottom dutifully takes you into the kitchens to watch star chefs cooking and finishing off dishes but this is no Food Network show.
Rather than discuss the meals as Anthony Bourdain would on “Parts Unknown,” the two regale one another with superb impressions of actors, many of whom they undoubtedly know professionally. A few gags will get lost on Americans as they deal with British shows and personalities.
One long riff concerns Michael Caine in Christopher Nolan’s Batman film and ends with a hysterical imagined on-set confrontation between an assistant director and actor Tom Hardy over his inarticulate line deliveries.
The two somewhat follow the 19th-century routes taken by Byron and Shelley. Considerable discussions ensue about these Romantic poets and their time in Italy. This in turn leads to melancholy moments of wistful musings about aging, regrets and death.
Fear not though. This is no “My Dinner with Andre.” There’s too much silliness and hedonistic abandon for existential thoughts to invade the conversation for more than a moment. And these usually lead to another great line or gag.
Some lines even require a moment for, as the Brits say, “the penny to drop.” Coogan — or was it Brydon?— watches a lovely hotel hostess stroll across the patio and remarks on her splendid gait. Brydon replies that it’s undoubtedly padlocked.
It does take a moment for that one to hit home.
Another exchange finds Coogan getting the word “affable” into as many consecutive sentences with multiple usages of the word as anyone could possibly manage.
The conversations occur more or less non-stop in their rental Mini Cooper, often top down; at breakfast, lunch and dinner; and in hotel lounges and suites along with shots of their car navigating congested Roman traffic or whizzing down the Amalfi coast.
Underneath the achingly beautiful surface, a sense of opportunities lost and roads not taken often lurks. The actors, playing two people close to but not truly themselves, do sometimes hint at the price paid for careers in show business.
Rob has an offer of work in the States, which means a prolonged absence from his family. Steve is looking for a means to get back into the life of his son following his divorce.
The trip to Italy resolves nothing. It simply lets its audience enjoy the sharp comic byplay of these two marvelous performers. Whatever trials and tribulations Steve and Rob suffer seem only fair given that you don’t get to sample even one pasta dish.
Opens: August 15, 2014 (IFC Films)
Production Companies: Small Man, Baby Cow Films, Revolution Films
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Rosie Fellner, Claire Keelan, Marta Barrio, Timothy Leach, Ronni Ancona, Rebecca Johnson
Director/screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom
Producer: Melissa Parmenter
Director of photography: James Clarke
Editors: Mags Arnold, Paul Monaghan, Marc Richardson
No rating, 107 minutes