Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite for another magical mystery food tour.

Earlier this summer, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s blockbuster sequel 22 Jump Street racked up a lot of comic—not to mention box office—mileage by openly acknowledging its status as a financially motivated follow-up to a hit movie. Now, Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy, which dispatches bickering comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on a gastronomic tour of the Italian countryside, closes out the warm weather season by navigating its way through similarly self-aware waters…albeit on a much smaller scale. (To be fair, Italy was in the can well before Jump Street; it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and opened in its native England this past spring, two months before the odd couple comedy team of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill made their return.)

While not a mainstream smash on the level of the first Jump Street vehicle, Winterbottom’s previous Trip, originally released in 2010 as a short-run TV series for U.K. television and re-edited into a theatrical feature for international audiences, is a confirmed hit in the art-house realm. The secret of its success had less to do with its thin wisp of a premise—in brief: frenemies Coogan and Brydon ate their way through North England, matching wits over each meal and wrestling with various middle-age concerns in private—than with watching the two leads (playing loose versions of themselves) mock-argue for the camera, drawing just enough on their actual lives to make you wonder what’s real and what’s been invented for the benefit of the camera. The best-known bit of business from the first movie involved the duo waging a war to determine which of them had the better Michael Caine impression, a routine that’s summarily trotted out within the first ten minutes of this second installment, setting up an extended riff about how sequels never measure up to the original…save for The Godfather Part II, Brydon notes. (Good on him for mentioning that one, but he also could have cited Toy Story 2 and, most recently, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, as other examples.) As their British comedy forebearers might put it: wink wink nudge nudge say no more!

Coogan and Brydon’s general warning about second installments proves prophetic as The Trip to Italy fails to provide as many chuckles, or strike as many emotional chords, as their North England tour. Taken on its own terms, though, it’s a pleasant trifle aided immeasurably by a setting that’s just as sumptuous (if not more so) than any of the rustic Italian meals the stars chow down on. Besides the scenery and cuisine, the most notable difference between this film and its predecessor is which character emerges as the central star. Although Brydon and Coogan consistently share more or less equal screentime, it was the latter’s personal and professional malaise that provided the narrative engine and dramatic throughline for so much of the original Trip.

In contrast, an alternate title for Italy—to namecheck another famously better-than-the-original sequel—could be: Brydon Strikes Back. While Steve’s onscreen life has mostly stabilized during the four year hiatus between movies, Rob suddenly finds himself in a state of flux. On the career side of things, at least, this flux is the result of some good news: after years of trying to prove that he’s more than an affable television personality and expert mimic, Brydon has landed an opportunity to audition for a dramatic turn in a Michael Mann film that could open up entirely new professional avenues for him to explore. Naturally, he’s thrilled, but also more than a little freaked out by the thought of throwing himself into such a drastically different work environment, so much so that he almost flubs the reading by insisting on adopting a loose Al Pacino impression that really should disqualify him from landing the role. (Non-spoiler alert: it doesn’t.)

Meanwhile, on the personal side of things, this happily married family man has made the rather seismic decision of having a one-night stand with an ex-pat cutie…behavior that’s usually attributed to noted playboy “Steve Coogan” rather than “Rob Brydon.” And that recognition that he may be turning into his traveling companion—Hollywood-bound and cheerfully adulterous—is perhaps the thing that wigs him out the most. At the same time, a little Brydon seems to be rubbing off on Coogan, as Steve’s primary arc throughout the film involves him embracing the family he left behind to pursue stardom, specifically his fictional teenage son, Joe (Timothy Leach). (In real life, Coogan only has one child, a daughter.) The surroundings also have a more profound impact on him than his more distractible pal, with a visit to the ruins of Pompeii clearly inspiring thoughts of mortality that he’s not entirely prepared to wrestle with.

The small, but crucial shift in focus from Steve to Rob might be the central reason why Italy doesn’t pack the same punch as the first Trip. Brydon’s a charming traveling companion, but he lacks the same edgy unpredictability that allows his co-star to be at once both funny and dramatic, sometimes in the same scene. It’s too readily apparent when Rob starts playing “Rob,” whereas Steve more successfully blurs the lines between his on-screen and off-screen lives. Brydon’s at his most relaxed and natural whenever he’s sharing the frame with Coogan, whether they’re sitting across the table from each other in a picturesque restaurant or cruising down a winding mountain road in a sporty car, Alanis Morissette blasting from the stereo. (By the way, the use of the singer’s 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill” as a recurring soundtrack source may be intended as a joke, but damned if those vintage ’90s tunes don’t sound pretty kick-ass twenty years after their heyday.) Their dynamic is strong enough to keep this slightly rudderless second Trip on track and make the unspoken, but assumed promise of a third tour—perhaps through the French countryside?—seem inviting.


Disney on Blu-ray


Never mind Muppets Most Wanted–the real Disney treasures being released on Blu-ray this week on disc hail from the Mouse House’s illustrious past, including one of my personal childhood favorites, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, a two-film showcase that I watched over and over again back in the heyday of VHS.  As the title suggests, these two shorts are derived from classic pieces of literature: Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows respectively, though each liberally adapts the original text.  As much as I love the energetic characterizations in the Mr. Toad segment, the Sleepy Hollow chapter remains my favorite realization of that tale, particularly the final charge of the Headless Horseman, one of the scariest, most striking villains ever brought to life by Disney’s crack animation team.  Sharing space on the disc is Fun and Fancy Free, another anthology production where the main highlight is Mickey and the Beanstalk, in which the studio’s Big Three–namely Mickey, Donald and Goofy–act out their version of the classic fairy tale about a towering beanstalk and a grumpy giant.  (That trio also headlines another new-to-Blu title, The Three Musketeers, a latter-day direct-to-video production from vaguely distant past of 2004.  Like much of the studio’s more recent DTV fare, it’s a forgettable diversion at best, but it is nice to see those veteran characters trotted out again.)  The studio’s other notable vault escapee is 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a movie that didn’t have as high a replay value in my household as other titles, but remains one of those rites-of-passage all the same.  The songs are fun, the mixture of live action and animation is delightful and the characters travel everywhere on a flying bed.  What’s not to like about all that?