In The Trip, well-known-in-the-UK/mostly-unknown-in-the-US comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play amplified versions of themselves in a sort of improv comedy My Dinner With Andre road trip movie (which was actually edited into a movie from a TV show), where they travel through the Northern English country side having droll conversations over pretentious food. It came out in 2010, and at the time all I knew of it was a clip where the two of them do adversarial Michael Caine impressions.
It was a funny clip, but it also made me wonder “How can this be a movie?” The Trip to Italy takes the same formula of extemporaneous dialog duets and delicious food and applies it to, you guessed it, Italy. As it turns out, it actually can be a movie. A pretty enjoyable one, in fact.
The strange, and strangely effective trick The Trip movies pull is that they’ve managed to harness the casual comedic energy of a podcast. The film isn’t a twisty turny whodunnit (obviously), and even as a comedy, it isn’t especially concerned with hijinks or zingy one-liners. It has the feel of a pleasant conversation with funny friends. It has its peaks and its valleys, its moments of weight and drama and its moments of high comedy. You’ll remember laughing your ass off, if not necessarily why. As Maya Angelou said, and every comedian knows is true, people won’t remember what you did or what you said, they’ll remember how you made them feel. And The Trip to Italy made me feel warm and happy (like your mom getting peed on). This is perhaps not surprising when you consider that it’s basically a mash-up of impressions of British celebrities, food porn, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album (the most kitsch-comedic of all pop music, behind Smash Mouth), ridiculously picturesque Italian travelogues with accompanying history lessons, and a series of inappropriate love interests. In other words, my wheelhouse.
As much as it’s not about “story” in the traditional sense, you eventually become attached to the characters through a gradual accumulation of seemingly trivial, mundane interactions until you find yourself totally invested in them, maybe even more so than if they’d been rendered with the usual collection of ‘telling moments.’ The deceptively laidback narrative style, this sort of drama by a thousand cuts, reminds me of Richard Linklater in his finer moments. In addition to being entertained by their well-worn impressions and sated into a bliss coma by the travel and food porn, you actually come to care about these pasty f*ckers and their painfully British lives. Do you know how hard it is to trick people into caring about an educated white male’s sex/family/aging/career/ennui troubles these days?
I’m no anglophile and I hate the kind of people who will swear up and down that the British version of Blah Blah Blah and Armpit Fart are far superior to that shallow American knockoff you and your fellow unstamped-passport philistines have been watching, but there are things The Trip to Italy does that you’d never see in an American comedy. There’s a distinct absence of that love-me-daddy sense of pandering cuteness that requires the protagonists to be constantly likable. The characters are free to cheat on their wives, occasionally be obnoxious, sometimes act like pretentious twatwaffles and generally do the kinds of screwed up things that make producers sweat bullets in the age of the focus group. Are they “likable” enough?? Does it have enough “heart??” Quick, add a cathartic moment with the kid!
The Trip To Italy doesn’t give a damn, and that’s exactly what gives it the breathing room to let the comedy and the character connections build organically. The key difference between The Trip To Italy and your standard studio comedy fare is the difference between a show recorded in front of a studio audience and a show recorded in a garage. When there are 200 people sitting in front of you waiting for you to say something funny, there’s a certain amount of pressure. There’s a distinct absence of that in The Trip To Italy. It feels like two guys trying to entertain each other, without that internal punchline metronome. And without that pressure, it’s free to go to occasionally dark, dull, or strange places. It doesn’t work every time, but it works enough that you want to keep watching.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.