‘A Trip to Italy’: Stale leftovers from a lousy meal

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“A Trip to Italy” is a follow-up to “The Trip.” Both films were cobbled together from episodes of a BBC television sitcom series, directed by Michael Winterbottom. They each starred Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictionalized versions of themselves.

The original set of shows was televised in 2010. They were premised on the notion that actor, Steve Coogan, had accepted a commission from London’s “The Observer” magazine to go on a tour of restaurants in the north of England and write about it. He undertakes the gig, principally to impress his gourmet girlfriend, Mischa, and spend time with her. Before they depart, Mischa breaks up with Coogan. To fill the void, rather than go alone, Coogan reluctantly invites fellow entertainer and quasi-friend, Rob Brydon.

During the tour, the newly single Coogan has a series of casual sexual trysts. Brydon is not nearly as much of a star. Moreover, he is a rather unattractive fellow, short with pock-marked skin and a grossly oversized jaw, Coogan resents the fact that Brydon is nevertheless far more comfortable in his skin that he is.

Throughout the film, the two bicker. They are engaged in an ongoing battle of improvised, petty one-upmanship. Each does competing impressions of Michael Caine and Sean Connery. The film provides only ephemeral moments of respite from their ongoing battles.

To satisfy viewers, who hadn’t had enough of this interminable squabbling, another set of shows was broadcast on British television during 2014. This time around, Coogan and Brydon are commissioned by “The Observer” to jointly follow in the footsteps of Lord Byron and other 19th century English Romantic poets through Italy. They will stay in six different places, Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, then end up in Capri. In each location, Coogan and Brydon savor delicious meals, all the while continuing their obnoxious arguments. Once again, they reprise their dueling impressions of Michael Caine and other celebrities. How many times do I need to hear them? When Coogan confides the fact that he committed adultery to a female friend, he does so in the voice of Hugh Grant. So, even when confessing to an intemperate act, Brydon can’t resist doing schtick. How pathetic!

The contentious dynamic between Coogan and Brydon was first manifested in “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” a 2005 film, which was also directed by Michael Winterbottom. The plot involved the quixotic efforts to adapt Laurence Sterne’s essentially unfilmable novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” Their passive-aggressive shenanigans were supposed to be funny.

In an interview Coogan explained that he and Brydon exaggerated, “the aspects of ourselves that help the comedy … I like playing with the fact that it might be me, to give it a bit more edge. So some of the conversations with Rob are funny, but some of them are very uncomfortable. They’re sort of genuine arguments. It’s a sort of an exaggeration of real life.”

I don’t know what Coogan and Brydon are like in real life. Could they really be anywhere near as unbearably passive-aggressive as their on-screen personae? Throughout his career, Coogan has portrayed a litany of smug, solipsistic, self-absorbed characters, most notably Alan Parsons. You know that a film is in trouble when Coogan’s character isn’t the most annoying one in a given film. Yet in “A Trip to Italy” and their other collaborations, Brydon is vying for this dubious distinction.

Both Coogan and Brydon might be euphemistically described as acquired tastes. Suffice it to say that it is a taste that I have not yet acquired. For that matter, I can’t imagine that I ever will.

The film captures the stunning scenery of Italy, especially those sites on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Scenes featuring the preparation of indigenous cuisine will make your mouth water. If the filmmakers edited out every scene with Coogan or Brydon in it, they would have a nice 20-minute spot for the Italian Tourism Board. However, as a feature length film, “A Trip to Italy” is a thoroughly annoying entity.

Despite the inclusion of delicious looking repasts, narratively “A Trip to Italy” is akin to stale leftovers from a lousy meal.

* ½ No MPAA rating 108 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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