Originally a BBC series, the 2011 comedy "The Trip" was more or less an excuse to let Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon do impressions for 90 minutes. Coogan and Brydon are two of Britain's foremost comedians, so a series featuring them visiting English restaurants for the purposes of travel essays was a winning bet: The series won a couple BAFTA awards, the British equivalent of the Oscars and Emmys. Episodes of "The Trip" were pasted together for a theatrical release here in the U.S., where it did nothing.
The sequel, "The Trip to Italy," also began as a BBC series. It's the smarter, better film of the two, though not as funny nor as dependent on impressions, and is—in its own way—quite a think piece.
Coogan you may know already. He's appeared in a number of American movies and last year's "Philomena" led to his first two Oscar nominations, for Best Picture (as a producer) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Brydon hasn't done much stateside work, although you may have accidentally seen him with Coogan in "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" about 10 years ago.
Turns out, that bizarre adaptation of one of history's most bizarre novels is something of a fulcrum here. Michael Winterbottom, one of the most unpredictable directors going, made that film, teaming Coogan and Brydon as themselves in a mostly improvised script. Jump ahead to "The Trip," and again, we had improvised dialogue and Coogan and Brydon starring as themselves. Now here's round three.
The maturity that "The Trip to Italy" showcases is a byproduct of three people who know what they're doing becoming more and more comfortable with each other's moves. "The Trip," for all its punchy, two-minute YouTube glory (Coogan's Stephen Hawking impression is particularly devastating), didn't have much for us to hold on to. The fictionalized Coogan was a brooding star unhappy with his life and career, while Brydon was sunnily the opposite, despite not having the same level of fame. But it really was the impressions that made it go.
This time around, Coogan is in a slightly better frame of mind, reconnecting with his teenage son, albeit over Skype. Brydon, meanwhile, is away from his wife and young daughter and begins to have feelings for a woman he meets on the Italian voyage. It's not a complete role reversal, but both men are making concessions toward the middle ground. It's a more thoughtful position for each of them—finding, relating to and dealing with circumstances that hit us all to some degree. There are external influences, too, as both men see this paid writing assignment as a way to channel the great romantics, stepping where Shelley and Byron had walked before them.
But this is really Michael Winterbottom's show, and stealthily so. His direction is superb, his pacing exquisite. You may not notice at first, but that's the way all great direction should be. "The Trip to Italy" is still nominally a comedy, but you can't watch this film and not come away with a deep appreciation for the care with which it was made, the beauty in the composition of many of the shots, and even his careful uses of "Im Abendrot," the final of Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs." It seems like an odd choice for the material at first, however, by the time it closes the picture, Winterbottom has made sense of Strauss' masterpiece, and of his jokers, now revealed more as men than performers.