Here's the question: why would you want to spend two hours following two grouchy middle-aged comedians traveling around Italy, ostensibly to assess top-shelf Italian restaurants for a newspaper article, but in fact taking stock of where their lives are at the moment and wondering where did things stop going the way they'd wanted them to?
Of course, it depends on who the grouchy comedians are and on who is tagging along with them. In this case, the comedians are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, starring in a sequel to a previous collaboration in the same vein, the very successful The Trip, a hybrid of film and TV series, documentary and fiction that followed them around a gastronomical trip to the Lake District. It's fair to say that there will be a lot of people interested in taking another trip with the pair.
But, while there's certainly more than just a demand for a sequel as a motivation for The Trip to Italy, its non-descript, uninspired handling and general desultory laziness suggests that nobody really thought much about it. Director Michael Winterbottom has always enjoyed blurring the borders between documentary and fiction, nowhere more than in his previous collaborations with Mr. Coogan (not only in The Trip, but also in the Factory/Tony Wilson biopic 24 Hour Party People or his riff on Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story).
Again, the difference between Messrs. Coogan and Brydon as actors and Coogan and Brydon as characters is blurred here, with the actors playing not themselves but alternate-universe versions within a fictional storyline (the purported "real people" that show up during their travels, from Mr. Brydon's wife on the phone to Mr. Coogan's son who joins them at the end, are actually actors playing characters).
But, by condensing in under two hours material shot for a six-episode TV series, The Trip to Italy doesn't seem so much to move from one tourist stop to the next, as it lurches in a stop-start fashion. No context or location is ever given out to the viewer, the meals are shown but never explained, signalling that the aim is not to make an actual travelogue but to use its structure to journey within its characters' bitter-sweet relationship as they travel through Italy following the footsteps of 19th century poets Byron and Shelley.
The obvious reference point here is Roberto Rossellini's 1954 Journey to Italy, with British expats Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders sharing an existential road trip, but it quickly becomes clear Mr. Winterbottom is punching in way above his head in openly referencing that classic. Messrs. Coogan and Brydon's rapport makes their push-and-pull, back-and-forth relationship conveniently awkward and brings out the tensions that success and questioning raise, but that uneasy dynamic sits oddly with the extended improvisational riffs on the state of art and acting these days (even if, say, their takes on Michael Caine or Marlon Brando are actually very funny). Almost as if they wanted to have their cake and eat it, too.
Above all, The Trip to Italy is yet another puzzling reminder of how a director as intriguing as Mr. Winterbottom, and responsible for interesting work such as A Mighty Heart or 24 Hour Party People, keeps churning out films as underwhelming as this. Shot in an utterly indifferent, anonymous way, cutting back and forth between Mr. Coogan and Mr. Brydon in a way that seems to try to create rhythm or action where there is none, not above resorting to picture postcard shots or long lenses to show "yes, they're really there!", it's a "damp squib" of a sequel that will probably appeal only to completists of its stars and director.
THE TRIP TO ITALY
United Kingdom 2014
Cast Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Rosie Fellner, Claire Keelan, Marta Barrio, Timothy Leach, Ronni Ancona, Rebecca Johnson
Director Michael Winterbottom; cinematographer James Clarke (colour); costumes Lisa Shanley; editors Mags Arnold, Paul Monaghan and Marc Richardson; producer Melissa Parmenter; production companies Revolution Films, Baby Cow Films and Small Man Films for BBC Films
Screened November 15th 2014, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)