For women, especially, it’s wholly out of fashion to have sympathy for middle-aged white men. In both real life and fiction, the thinking goes, they’ve reigned supreme long enough. Who cares about their anxiety over their receding hairlines, their poochy stomachs, their inability to attract young babes? That tinny plink you hear, as they wail about their fears and insecurities, is the sound of the world’s tiniest violin.
Yet Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, the dueling stars first of Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 The Trip — in which the two kvetched and squabbled through an automobile journey crisscrossing the English countryside — have restored some mojo to the classic middle-aged gent’s lament. Now, in The Trip to Italy, Coogan and Brydon — again playing semi-improvisatory versions of themselves — explore Italian coastal spots and cities, sampling meals from the finest restaurants, but again, pay only minimal attention to the food. The Trip to Italy is basically more of the same Trip — with yet more picturesque scenery, more muted and not-so-muted fretting about the horrors of getting older, more Michael Caine imitations — only the surprise factor has diminished. Now we know just what to expect from Coogan and Brydon, though as long as you’re willing to settle in for the ride, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
For some mystical reason that has to do less with reality than with the creation of fictional plots, Brydon and Coogan have again been sent out by a London newspaper to sample the culinary delights of a given locale. Brydon rings Coogan up to talk him into it; this takes about two minutes. Next thing we know, the two are winding through the Italian countryside in a rented MINI Cooper, Alanis Morissette tootling from the stereo. Brydon wonders aloud how Alanis pronounces her first name; Coogan offers more possible answers than necessary, although listening to his mind shift gears is fascinating by itself: It can’t be the feminine version of Alan, because no one would say Alan-is. And it’s a made-up name, anyway, he offers — she’s probably a Morrissey fan. All of this improvisatory applesauce comes after Coogan guesses — correctly — that Brydon has rented a MINI specifically so that he can pretend he’s in The Italian Job. It’s only a matter of seconds before someone says, in the young Michael Caine voice (as opposed to the older one, which will come later), “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.”
Things get more serious as the trip winds on, and as more fabulous modern-Italian delicacies are plated and consumed. (There are lots of close-ups of anonymous chef types drizzling lovely little seafood nothings with aromatic-looking sauces; don’t show up with an empty stomach.) This Coogan has some family problems, and his career is stalling out — he can’t help feeling jealous that Brydon just might land a part in a big Michael Mann film. (The unspoken joke is that these days it’s not easy even for Michael Mann to get a big Michael Mann film made.) Brydon has a young child at home, and his wife is distracted and cranky every time he phones her from the road. Whether that’s intended as a sidelong justification for his dalliance with the bright, pretty woman who’s first mate of the boat he and Coogan have chartered (she’s played by Rosie Fellner), that dalliance happens. It’s easy enough to judge him, but it’s far more interesting to watch how he deals with his feelings of guilt and confusion.
Of course, most of the time, Coogan and Brydon are cracking unapologetically puerile Mount Vesuvius jokes or making fun of Lord Byron’s full name. (There’s a “Gordon” in there, which they find hilarious. Come to think of it, it is.) Winterbottom orchestrates it all beautifully, which is to say that he seems to not be orchestrating it at all — his touch is wonderfully casual. Like The Trip before it, The Trip to Italy is a condensed version of a television series. For those who think a multi-part serial might be too much of a good thing, Winterbottom offers the option of imbibing in one concentrated dose.
This dose is probably just enough. And no matter what, I’ll always feel more sympathy for Brydon and Coogan, in their middle-aged malaise, than I will for Paul Giamatti’s wine-swilling sad sack in Sideways. At the time of that movie’s release, women who expressed exasperation with it were treated as unsympathetic she-wolves -- or at least I was. Why couldn’t I respond to Giamatti’s deep, existential sadness as he shlepped through California wine country? Why couldn’t I rejoice in his ability to ultimately land a babe like Virginia Madsen? Giamatti, like Charlie Chaplin, spent too much time plinking at the pathos key. Brydon and Coogan are more like Buster Keaton: For every five minutes of self-pity, they spend thirty poking fun at themselves. The rest of the time they spend trying to sound like Michael Caine. Boys will be boys.