If comedy is all about timing, then let's take a moment to appreciate the nifty scheduler who decided to gift us with The Trip to Italy this Labor Day weekend, on what are already the three most bittersweet days of the year. The days are shorter, the abyss of pumpkin-spice everything and work that is September looms. Labor Day is our last hurrah—a mid-life crisis of a holiday in which we attempt to make up for all the fun we've failed to have, all the cookouts we haven't gone to, and all the idyllic vacations we've neglected to take.
When The Trip debuted in 2010, it was a surprisingly endearing and authoritative hit, given the premise—two hours of watching British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon drive around eating food and doing impressions of Michael Caine. (The feature U.S. audiences saw was an edited version of six half-hour television episodes). But the poster hints at the movie's subtle profundity: Coogan gazing gloomily at the camera while Brydon laughs at the heavens, the pair looking for all the world like the inseparable Greek masks for comedy and tragedy. Coogan was the unhappy, deeply lonely Hollywood success story, while Brydon was the quietly contented family man. At the conclusion of their road trip around the finer eating establishments of northern England, Coogan returned to an empty high-rise apartment with glittering views of London, while Brydon went home to a more modest brick house and the embrace of his wife and child.
The Trip to Italy has no such conclusion, even as it reconstitutes the premise of the first film as best it can, giving Brydon and Coogan the same cushy assignment for the Observer: an all-expenses-paid driving tour of six destinations that are both visually and gastronomically jaw-dropping. ("Neither of us, with all respect, knows anything about food," Coogan points out early on, but that isn't the point.) Only this time, the distinctions between the two characters—exaggerated versions of their real-life selves—have blurred. Brydon, tired of the affability of his public persona, drinks and carouses on the beach with a blonde expat while Coogan, still melancholy but newly sober, reads Byron in bed and tries to Skype with his son.
Both films pay particular attention to the process and meaning of art, even if such thoughtfulness tends to get lost amid the gut-busting, teary laughs and the aforementioned procession of competing Michael Caines. Before the food arrives at the various tables, director Michael Winterbottom (who also led Coogan and Brydon in the 2006 film A Cock and Bull Story) lingers in the kitchen, watching the clatter of pans and the exacting way in which a faceless chef paints a swipe of sauce on a plate just so. Unfailingly, the pair take a few bites of each and then utter inanities that mostly involve the word "good" before launching into an attempt to one-up each other with impersonations. A.J. Liebling it ain't, but the glee with which Brydon pretends to be Al Pacino and the reluctant scorn with which Coogan inevitably joins in is why both The Trip and The Trip to Italy are so much fun. Is Winterbottom making a subtle point about oafs who fail to appreciate true virtuosity, both in restaurants and at the movies? Maybe, but it's funny as hell.
While The Trip took its heroes on a literary tour of the haunts of Wordsworth and Coleridge, The Trip to Italy is all about Byron and Shelley, yet another odd couple of artists who inspired (and presumably irritated) each other. The highlight of this extended metaphor is mostly a riff on Byron's humdrum middle name, Gordon, since this particular trip focuses less on poetry than on death, taking its protagonists to the calcified ruins of Pompeii and the catacombs of Rome. While Coogan's midlife crisis appears to be waning, he's as gloomy as ever in confronting his own invisibility to a group of young Italian girls. Brydon, meanwhile, veers away from abrupt phone calls with his harassed wife and into the arms of a British tour guide, whom he woos with a series of ineffable Hugh Grant impressions as his career begins to take an upward, even Cooganesque, turn.
The Trip to Italy exceeds even the first movie when it comes to sheer beauty, whether it's the pair careening around steep Italian cliff roads in a tiny Mini Cooper (cue the Italian Job quotes), or an extended shot of a plate of handmade spaghetti that virtually wafts the scent of garlic and Parmesan into the theater. And the jokes, when they come, are glorious, particularly a sequence in which Coogan and Brydon get stuck listening to Jagged Little Pill and bicker over the correct way to pronounce "Alanis."
But they're tempered in the second half of the film by the sadness that pervades the picture, like a black cloud hovering over the azure Mediterranean. "The soul is born old but grows young," said Oscar Wilde. "That is the comedy of life. And the body is born young and grows old. That is life's tragedy." At the end of a summer in which we've been reminded yet again of the fragility of our favorite clowns, the poignancy of seeing two brilliant comedians wrestle with existential sadness has a particularly sharp edge. And unlike the first film, there isn’t necessarily a happy home to return to.