Michael Winterbottom has been something of a grinder in the film industry over the past two decades. In that time, he has cranked out an impressive body of work, knocking out at least one movie a year, each one shifting in size and scope as he’s moved forward with his career. He can follow up a scrappy drama about two Pakistanis trying to emigrate to the UK with a large scale science fiction work and then a bedroom drama that required the actors onscreen to actually have sex with each other.
With projects in development all the time, you start to understand why he would turn around and work on something like The Trip and its recently released follow up The Trip To Italy. It is the cinematic equivalent of a vacation for Winterbottom. All he has to do is spent a few weeks in some beautiful countryside that practically films itself, set up a space for a couple of comedic geniuses to banter over a delicious meal, and let the cameras roll.
That relaxed feeling that pervades the work only helps to emphasize and highlight the unease of what is unfurling in front of the cameras between actor/comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, especially on their journey through Italy. The overarching theme of this particular Trip is male friendship and how strangely loving and discomfortingly competitive it can often be.
As much fun as it is to watch the two trade impressions of Michael Caine and the various James Bonds, there’s a gamesmanship apparent in each scene. Each one wants to outsmart and outperform the other. Or in Coogan’s case, it is simply to get his frenemy to admit in some small or large way that his own career has been the superior one. It never quite gets to that point, as Brydon is too busy taking himself down a peg while also ribbing Coogan for his vanity and standoffish attitude.
Trip To Italy also goes surprisingly and subtly deep on the male species, particularly the English version. A subplot involving Coogan trying to make a connection with his teenage son is lovely and a little heartbreaking as his British demeanor keeps him from offering up any real affection towards the young man. An inability to express emotions fully comes out in Brydon’s side story. On the trip, he tries and fails to connect in any way with his wife, which feeds his decision to have a fling with a much-younger English expat. And the only person that he opens up to onscreen is his editor (Claire Keelan, reprising her role from the first series/film).
Maybe then Winterbottom’s decision to simply set up a couple of cameras and let them roll was the smartest one he could have made. Why bother trying to add even more weight to this Trip when all the drama is being felt in every eye roll, cutting remark, and pained expression coming from Coogan and Brydon?