The Trip to Italy was shot long before Robin Williams died last week, but the film, which is out in theaters now, has acquired an unintended level of melancholy from its proximity to the comedian's suicide.
Like its predecessor The Trip, The Trip to Italy is an improvised film from the U.K., cut down from a slightly longer British TV series, in which actors and professional funny people Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan play fictionalized versions of themselves. They drive around northern England in the first movie and Italy in the second (both directed by Michael Winterbottom), eating exquisite-looking food at different restaurants as part of an assignment from the Observer magazine. They bicker competitively, do impressions, sightsee, and call home.
That's the bulk of it.
The Trip to Italy is a featherweight delight, willfully maintaining its focus on two somewhat famous guys who sometimes like each other and other times can't stand each other. They drive around the country in a Mini Cooper, having rambling back-and-forths that provide insight into their personal lives before diving down rabbit holes involving Alanis Morissette lyrics, the etiquette of eating people, and who does the better Clint Eastwood. It's all one big, often hilarious digression between the pair, who riff off the lightly fictionalized dynamic they developed while co-starring in Winterbottom's 2005 Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.
Steve's the testier one, holding himself a little above Rob while never actually proving himself to be more mature. And Rob cheerfully plays along with this power structure in which Steve's positioned them, while never failing to get his own blows in. The thing is, they're both insecure, jealous, and worried about the future, and neither has a firm grip on his personal life. But that...that they don't talk about.
Rob and Steve are very funny, but they're compulsively so. They chase each another down cul-de-sacs of conversation in which the silliest thoughts are allowed to fully play out. The scene above is one of the highlights of the movie, with Rob pulling a supposedly reluctant (but actually delighted) Steve into a discussion on their favorite person to imitate: Michael Caine, a callback to the first film. It turns into a play on one of Caine's lines in The Dark Knight Rises — "I'm not going to bury another Batman." "Another Batman? How many Batmans has he been burying?" — that becomes a debate about who's the least intelligible: Christian Bale or Tom Hardy. It's a dazzling display of verbal agility, wit, and absolute, unapologetic dorkiness.
At moments like that, Rob and Steve seem intensely in sync, able to springboard from idea to idea and to populate miniature universes on the fly (a bit about Gore Vidal is especially good). But while the two may entertain and annoy each other to no end, it's when they're separated that they reveal their more vulnerable sides. The married Rob takes a flirtation with one of the women he meets along the way further than he planned, while Steve tries to connect with his 16-year-old son. Rob lands a part in a Michael Mann film — which he upgrades to a leading role when telling Steve — but it will take him away from his wife and daughter for two months, while Steve thinks about mortality and wonders what he'll be remembered for.
While neither Rob nor Steve seems likely to offer much emotional support, each understands the other — and when Rob, late in the film, quickly and with no fuss accedes to a change in plans because of Steve's family, it's a touch of softness amidst the banter that's all the more touching for how quietly it happens. Yes, The Trip to Italy's versions of Brydon and Coogan are a little worse, more fallible, more obnoxious than the reality, their every actual foible blown up on screen in a form of indirect confessional. But for a movie so flighty, it does find time for small moments of fragility and self-deprecation — the slightly mean edge comes out from time to time in the duo's exchanges when they cut a little too close to home.
It's these moments that most summon thoughts of Williams, as The Trip to Italy affirms how little being helplessly funny and being happy have to do with one another, and how little being successful and being satisfied do as well. An all-expenses-paid trip to eat gourmet food in Italy is an incredible privilege, but that doesn't mean it, like the many other aspects of the life of a performer, can't also be lonely.