From Liguria and Tuscany to the eternal city of Rome and glorious vistas of Capri, our dynamic duo spend their days taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a country – though you’d never guess it – currently experiencing one of its most destructive economic slumps in living memory. But this isn’t the Italy Winterbottom is interested in either exploring or representing. Following in the footsteps of the infamous Lord Byron (with Percy Shelley and other literary luminaries also given their time in the sun), the great writers and thinkers of the 19th century are sidled alongside impersonated stars of the silver screen. Michael Caine, Ronny Corbett, Al Pacino and former Bond Roger Moore are all given the Brydon-Coogan treatment, grist to the mill of these two amiable but anxiety-ridden British manchildren.
With Coogan’s career stalling somewhat (in Winterbottom’s uncanny reality, at least) and Brydon determined to defend his broad primetime chat show and well-paid commercial work from – seemingly – himself, a respite from the rigmarole of casting auditions and agent meetings proves a welcome one. The pair muse on Byron’s role as the celebrity darling of his age, a prodigious mind and prolific partier whose antics have become the stuff of legend (which one of the two actors can certainly associate with), in between taxing rounds of ‘Guess the Bill’ and the occasional Anthony Hopkins-off. Interestingly, however, the two comedians’ personae begin to merge as the series progresses; the married Brydon bags a supporting role in an upcoming Michael Mann gangster movie and enjoys a fling with a pretty guide, whilst Coogan worries over his teenage son and seems more uncomfortable in his Steve-suit with each subsequent episode.
The tertiary star here is, of course, the haute cuisine served up by some of Italy’s most acclaimed restaurants. Seafood is the order of the day, the two friends sampling exquisite frutti di mare during conversations as far-ranging as cult ITV darts gameshow Bullseye (“There’s only one word for that: magic darts!”) to the different intonations potentially used by a newsreader to evoke a sense of joy/sadness/revulsion in the viewer (“The actor and comedian, Steve Coogan…”). Most in-line with the ingenuity and wit of 2005’s A Cock and Bull Story – an inventive and hilarious attempted adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and arguably Winterbottom’s finest feature filmmaking hour – The Trip to Italy may seem like an insubstantial vehicle for Messrs Brydon and Coogan to catch some rays and stuff their faces, but beneath lies a sharp and exacting dissection of middle-age malaise in the modern man.