“The Trip to Italy” is, in a sense, a sequel to “The Trip” (2010, released here in 2011), also directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The first film was an edited-down version of a six-episode British TV show of the same name. The show was popular enough to warrant a second season, which has in turn been edited down into “The Trip to Italy” — not quite as funny as its predecessor, but good enough to please fans.
In “The Trip,” Coogan and Brydon played themselves or, more likely, exaggerated or variant versions of themselves, much like Albert Brooks did in “Real Life,” one of the first and greatest mockumentaries. They retain the details of their actual careers, referring to real projects they've been in. Coogan is a little older and more insecure; at times, he resents being upstaged by the more easygoing upstart Brydon.
The setup for the first film was that a newspaper has asked Coogan to review a series of restaurants in the north of England; Brydon is recruited at the last moment to accompany him. That film maintained a halfhearted pretense of being real, which could be taken seriously if you believe that hidden cameras just happened to be everywhere they went. There was no acknowledgment that a crew must have always been present, whether the two were eating and assessing their meals or were “alone” in their car.
This time around, Winterbottom reminds us that we're not watching a documentary in the very first shot — Coogan standing on a balcony in his underpants, as viewed from inside his bedroom. Later we are also privy to an intimate moral transgression that would never have survived editing, were it real.
Nonetheless, it's possible to fall into thinking that we're watching Coogan and Brydon rather than “Coogan” and “Brydon.” Most of the running time is devoted to the two men being served real meals at real restaurants and checking into real hotels. The food is often mouth-watering — Winterbottom occasionally cuts to the kitchen for bits of the preparation — and anyone who snags the snack concession in the lobby (or, likelier, the restaurants near the theater) could make out very nicely indeed.
The dialogue is largely improvised — it's unclear whether during rehearsals or entirely while the cameras are rolling — which also bolsters the sense of reality. Less than halfway through, Coogan's assistant (played by an actress) shows up, as does his “son” later on. Presumably their dialogue and the situations they participate in are entirely written.
Much of best table talk in “The Trip” involved Coogan and Brydon doing impressions of Michael Caine, Al Pacino and others, with each trying to top the other. At the very beginning of “The Trip to Italy,” they pledge not to do it again — a pledge that is broken almost immediately. They reprise some of the same people — Pacino in particular — and add others, including Gore Vidal, Tom Hardy and Christian Bale.
At the same time, in both films, they discuss the Romantic poets who lived nearby. And the new movie has a greater number of more contemplative, noncomic moments, often accompanied by the stunning melodramatic introduction to Richard Strauss' song “Im Abendrot” (which was also used in David Lynch's “Wild at Heart”). Without these moments, the pace of the two comics' chatter might become exhausting.
“The Trip to Italy” is funny enough to rate another follow-up, even if it doesn't match “The Trip.” Not surprisingly, some of the freshness is lost. We've already met these characters and heard their comic rhythm and much of their shtick. Still, I'd be content to hear these two riff over and over again. It wouldn't be fair to call “The Trip to Italy” reheated leftovers; and it's even possible that the order in which you view them might determine which you prefer.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).