One fascination of director Michael Winterbottom's breezy culinary road trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is the way the male ego gets skewered in the pair's exchanges. The film is essentially a running gag on the competitive urge as Coogan and Brydon try to outdo each other's Michael Caine impression, struggle to appear happy at one man's success or suppress a certain satisfaction at another's failure. Served in small, savory bites, these are just some of the film's improvisational delights.
Indeed, the light, dry comedy is a model of minimalism in the way it follows the men, playing ever-so-slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, and their conversation through the sun-drenched Italian countryside. Along the way, they sample the top local cuisine, search out the spots that inspired British Romantic poets Shelley and Byron nearly 200 years ago, and contemplate modern life and middle age. With the camera once again in the good hands of James Clarke, the look and feel of the film hovers somewhere between picture-postcard perfect and cinema verite as the car wends its way from Liguria to Capri. The food prep in steaming kitchens, the fishing villages nestled against the Mediterranean and their rooms with a view are all sumptuous.
But you come for the conversation, and in that, "The Trip to Italy" rarely disappoints. It's easy to forget that the film -- excerpted from the second season of the pair's popular British TV series "The Trip" -- is a fiction. But there are reminders. Occasionally, Coogan and Brydon dig a little deeper, skirting around topics of mortality. But before things get too serious, they've launched into a discussion of which actor might play Coogan in a costume drama about his life.
From beginning to end, Coogan and Brydon exist in the kind of friend zone that is always inviting. As they reconnect, the fondness and the resentments surface but are never overdone. Winterbottom is clever to keep the portions small and the emotions light, because truly no one wants a summer road trip to get too heavy.
PLOT Two Englishmen gab and bicker while on a culinary road trip around Italy. Unrated.
CAST Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
BOTTOM LINE Absolutely delightful.
FOUR MORE: STEVE COOGAN VEHICLES
"The Trip to Italy," the movie version of his six-episode BBC Two television series, is comedian Steve Coogan's latest step in his own trip to become as well-known in the States as he is in his native UK. Here are four of his other notable works:
ALAN PARTRIDGE (character; 1991-present) Like Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G, Coogan's Partridge is a comically self-deluded parody of a TV personality -- in this case a sportscaster and talk-show host. Partridge began as a radio character and went on to star in numerous TV series and specials.
SAXONDALE (2006-07). As a 1970s rock roadie clinging to past glories while living as a suburban pest exterminator, star and co-writer Coogan is both hilarious and touching in this UK series available on Netflix.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2008) Many Americans first encountered Coogan as the Roman emperor Octavius in this hit family comedy and its 2009 sequel.
PHILOMENA (2013) Garnering Academy Award nominations as producer and co-writer of this fact-based drama about a woman seeking the son she was forced to give up, star Coogan held his own opposite Dame Judi Dench.
-- Frank Lovece