For all the splendid scenery, the enticing meals, the appealing wines and the frequently witty banter, “The Trip to Italy” remains a death-affirming film.
Writer-director Michael Winterbottom made “The Trip” four years ago, with actor-comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan playing characters based loosely on themselves. They were supposed to be writing a series of travel pieces for a British newspaper, and they joked and bickered across northern England.
Now the same paper has commissioned them to make six stops in Italy. But Winterbottom has darkened the tone: The final scene takes place during a golden sunset that brings no closure to either man.
Even the opening has less joie de vivre: Coogan takes the job because he’s out of work, and he chafes under Brydon’s constant chatter. There’s something sadly juvenile about a man approaching 50 who continually puns and does impressions in order to be noticed. Brydon can’t speak to a woman or read a line of poetry in his own voice, and he comes across as a class clown who doesn’t know school’s out. (Both will be 50 next year in real life.)
When they visit the catacombs of Naples, Coogan contemplates mortality, and Brydon jokes around. When they see the corpse of a man permanently entombed in lava by the eruption of Vesuvius, Coogan wonders if anyone mourned for him; Brydon does a funny voice (his famed “little man in a box”) to entertain himself.
On the soundtrack, when Bryden’s not blasting Alanis Morrisette in the car, we hear great classical music about the withdrawal from life. Gustav Mahler’s “I Have Lost Touch With the World” drifts by: “I hardly care if the world thinks I am dead/ Neither can I deny it, for I am truly dead to the world.”
The main theme comes from “Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”), one of Richard Strauss’ last songs: “O vast, tranquil peace, so deep in the evening's glow! How weary we are of wandering: Is this perhaps death?”
As Brydon philanders with a ship owner and frets about whether he’ll get a role in a Michael Mann movie about the Mafia, Coogan tries to patch up his relationship with a distant son and reads the poetry of Byron and Shelley, whose paths he and Brydon retrace.
In the end, despite all the quips and Michael Caine impressions, the movie’s about the probable death of a friendship. One man starts to grow up, one doesn’t, and they move apart. What opens with comic flair closes with muted despair.