“The Trip to Italy” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:48, three stars out of four.
Ever been on a fantastic vacation? Ever go back to the same spot the following summer?
Not quite the same, is it? You can still have a good time, but a great vacation is more than just location — it involves your state of mind, the time, the people you’re with, and often the essential newness of the experience. Hard to exactly replicate that again.
Oddly enough, the location is the only thing that changes about “The Trip to Italy,” the sequel to 2011’s “The Trip.” The hilarious original had Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves, sparring as they toured restaurants in the north of England. Their banter is born out of improvisation, and when both are on the game, the feeling is like watching two championship tennis players play a few matches for fun.
This time around they’re jetting around Italy, sampling fine meals and fine hotels, ostensibly writing articles for the London Observer. Print journalism is apparently in a very different place in Britain than it is here.
The pair winkingly acknowledge the futility of trying to make a sequel that tops the original before going back to their A-level material, including another round of Dueling Michael Caines. This segues into a discussion of “The Dark Knight Rises,” with Brydon and Coogan playing out an unintelligible conversation between Tom Hardy and Christian Bale. Robert De Niro, Hugh Grant, Anthony Hopkins and Roger Moore also make impersonation cameos. Brydon also falls back a lot on his Al Pacino, which somehow seems to get worse the more he does it.
In between dinners, they get stuck in Rome traffic, listen to “Jagged Little Pill” over and over on the car stereo, and wax philosophical about life, art and, most significantly this time, mortality. They quote “Hamlet.” They stare at younger men (“He’s an airbrushed me”) and the younger women who used to see them as creeps, now see them as a harmless, a “benevolent uncle.”
In “The Trip,” Coogan played himself as a rather vain actor desperate to be taken seriously, while Brydon was his affable Holy Fool sidekick. This time the roles have switched — Coogan seems more centered and thoughtful, and it’s Brydon who lusts after a big part in a Michael Mann movie, and starts cheating on his wife with a tour guide. (Brydon has such a nice-guy demeanor that this last part doesn’t quite seem believable.)
Brydon and Coogan make great traveling companions, and there are steady laughs to be found all along the trek. (My favorite exchange: “Where do you stand on Michael Buble?” “His windpipe?”) But “The Trip to Italy” does feel kind of like a second helping of pasta — just as tasty as the first, but not quite as necessary. The way the pair flit with serious themes only to back off into easy one-liners gets a little frustrating, although I suppose that’s the point, isn’t it, that these comedians are using good jokes, and good food, and good wine, and good hotels, and the occasional pretty woman, as a shield against the encroachent of time.
Not a bad shield, if you can get it.