One fascination of director Michael Winterbottom's breezy culinary road trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is the way the male ego gets skewered in the pair's exchanges. The film is essentially a running gag on the competitive urge, as Coogan and Brydon try to outdo each other's Michael Caine impression, struggle to appear happy at one man's success or suppress a certain satisfaction at another's failure.
Served in small, savory bites, these are just some of the film's improvisational delights.
Indeed, the light, dry comedy is a model of minimalism in the way it follows the men, playing ever-so-slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, and their conversation through the sun-drenched Italian countryside. Along the way, they sample the top local cuisine, search out the spots that inspired British Romantic poets Shelley and Byron nearly 200 years ago and contemplate modern life and middle age as tracks from Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" play.
As was the case in 2010's "The Trip," which took the pair on a similar excursion through northwestern England's Lake District, the vagaries of the acting life and Hollywood are never far away. Case in point: the entertaining nonsense of their debate over which actor is harder to understand in "The Dark Knight Rises" -- Tom Hardy or Christian Bale. Dueling impressions ensue. Hopefully, Hardy and Bale are in a forgiving mood.
With the camera once again in the good hands of James Clarke, the look and feel of the film hovers somewhere between picture-postcard perfect and cinema verite, as the car wends its way from Liguria to Capri. The food prep in steaming kitchens, the fishing villages nestled against the Mediterranean and their rooms with a view are all sumptuous.
But you come for the conversation, and in that, "The Trip to Italy" rarely disappoints. Brydon and Coogan's discourse over breakfast, lunch and dinner is captured with a casualness that makes the eavesdropping delicious. Every tiny snippet is drenched in the wry British wit and dash of lunacy both comic actors are known for. But the outsized physicality that often marks Coogan's work in particular is pulled back to human proportions.
It's easy to forget that the film -- excerpted from the second season of the pair's popular British TV series "The Trip" -- is a fiction. But there are reminders. When Brydon asks Coogan what he'll be remembered for most, the actor quickly answers: his "six" BAFTAs (the real Coogan has won four of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts' top awards). And there is no mention of the real Coogan's Oscar nomination earlier this year for cowriting "Philomena." Still, it is clear that between the two, Coogan is the more successful. That dynamic turns a possible part for Brydon in a new Michael Mann movie into a thorny issue. Again fiction. Again funny.
Occasionally, Coogan and Brydon dig a little deeper, skirting around topics of mortality. But before things get too serious, they've launched into a discussion of which actor might play Coogan in a costume drama about his life.
What helps "The Trip to Italy" feel fresh rather than a rehash of the first "Trip" in a sunnier clime is the intrusion of various outside forces. Brydon is dealing with relationship issues. Brief calls home to an impatient wife overwhelmed by their fussy 3-year-old set the stage for a possible flirtation with Lucy (Rosie Fellner), the sensitive blonde who captains the yacht that takes them on one leg of the journey.
Meanwhile, Coogan is Skyping with his frustrated teenager Joe (Timothy Leach), their relationship testy because of the travel demands of the actor's job and that normal distancing act 16-year-olds manage with such infuriating aplomb.
The food gets the kind of star turn designed to leave you salivating. Beautifully plated, a series of tempting delicacies are slipped in front of them at each stop. Byron and Shelley's work is made just as savory as the poets' lovely lyricism is recited and mulled.
From beginning to end, Coogan and Brydon exist in the kind of friend zone that is always inviting. As they reconnect, the fondness and the resentments surface but are never overdone. Winterbottom is clever to keep the portions small and the emotions light, because truly, no one wants a summer road trip to get too heavy.
The only real downside of "The Trip to Italy" is that movie theaters don't serve five-star pasta dishes on the side.
'The Trip to Italy'
H * * ½
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Rosie Fellner, Timothy Leach
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Running time: 1 hour,