Comedy sequel The Trip to Italy is almost exactly like its predecessor The Trip, and for the most part, that's a good thing. The plot of this foodie travelogue is entirely predictable, and the food is predictably gorgeous, but there's little predictable about the real sustenance of the film: the banter between stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, two British comedians playing funhouse-mirror versions of themselves.
The Trip to Italy is so similar to its predecessor in part because it's not so much a film sequel as a second season of a television series. It all started when the stars and director collaborated on "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story," which also riffed on the actors as themselves. The resulting brainstorm yielded The Trip, which debuted as a six-episode BBC series—in which "Coogan" and "Brydon" tour Northern England restaurants—that was edited into a feature film for export. As before, Michael Winterbottom directed the next batch of six episodes—involving the friends dining in Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, and Capri—whittled down here to a tight 108 minutes.
Ostensibly, the eating tour will serve as the basis for Brydon's article, also a sequel, commissioned by the London Observer newspaper. But the article is really an excuse for another bromantic holiday of upscale dining and relaxed chat, which often curdles as the aging lads contemplate what their careers and marriages and children are amounting to. Friendly ribbing between the friends takes on the distinct edge of competitive insecurity, exacerbated by Brydon landing an audition for a Michael Mann movie. The tour also includes photo ops: not only breathtaking coastal views for Winterbottom's camera, but also places where the Romantic poets slept.
The clunkiest parts of The Trip to Italy are when Brydon—known as an impressionist—and Coogan trade celebrity voices (Hugh Grant, Al Pacino, even Gore Vidal), and yet these passages also provide some of the most sheer fun these "Trip"s offer. Last time, the boys riffed hilariously on Michael Caine, name-dropping (among other films) The Dark Knight. With the new ammunition of The Dark Knight Rises, the guys go after Caine again, but also Tom Hardy (that film's semi-incomprehensible Bane). Part of the fun, too, is in the witty pretexts for impressions, including Brydon's rental car selection of a Mini, which he has chosen expressly for an excuse to do Caine.
A visit to Shelley's grave also offers a good excuse, to crack self-defensively wise about death and legacy. These grounding moments, and a purposely distressing subplot about nice-guy Brydon fooling around with a young tour guide give the otherwise airy The Trip to Italy some genuine weight. It's one of those "what's not to like?" movies, though I suppose the answer there would be Coogan and Brydon. I find them endlessly charming (even when the impressions are weak, which they sometimes are). Your mileage may vary.