Impersonations provide the comedy in The Trip to Italy but behind the funny lies something serious.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, while the best impersonations often originate from a place of reverence they soon evolve into a more crude caricature exploiting the nuances and eccentricities of a subject. In that regard then, imitation is more of a backhanded compliment at once praising one’s individuality while directly undermining it.
There is also an innocent childishness in impersonations, a playful anti-authoritarianism that we all developed having spent years under the watchful eyes of our parents. Perhaps this is why we find impersonations so universally funny. Like the tall poppy, an impression can bring even the highest of us down to ground level.
In Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 film The Trip, impersonations are a way for Steve (Coogan) and Rob (Brydon) to connect. As the pair traverses the misty moors of Northern England it becomes apparent that the only way to endure the monotony of each other’s company is by one-upping each other at impersonations of Michael Caine or Scaramanga.
Yet Winterbottom, who is renowned for dabbling in the world of metafiction, takes it a step further. Coogan and Brydon are themselves playing impersonations: extensions and exaggerations of themselves. They are exploiting their own eccentricities and playing out their weaknesses and insecurities for the sake of the narrative.
In the follow up film The Trip to Italy, Rob and Steve are travelling once again. This time in pursuit of ‘la dolce vita.’ Set amidst the beautiful scenery of Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi and Capri the pair are at their absolute best. However, things have changed. Steve with no woman to pine for is more comfortable with his relative success and is instead concentrating on his relationship with estranged son Joe. Rob, however, is restless.
With the pair now more amiable too, the focus falls heavily on Rob and Steve’s personal lives. They lament being passed over by women, they rue technology and they long for something simpler and perhaps more meaningful in their lives. But they are not downtrodden. There still exists the bravado and male competitiveness that brings out the best in their relationship (the best of course being their impersonations).
On the chopping block this time are the Batman films, Michael Parkinson and his odd obsession with Michael Bublé, Alanis Morissette and of course The Godfather. Yet, their lengthy catalogues of celebrity impressions as well as their squabbles about art, both high and low, are contextualised by the more serious fact that they are ageing and their priorities shifting. And this is where the film is brilliant.
As the trip progresses it becomes apparent that for Rob and Steve impersonations are no longer a way to show off. Rather, they are a mask to hide their deflated egos and at times a desperate grab for relevance. Underneath all the hilarity is the sad realisation that Rob and Steve are simply ordinary people trying to negotiate the same minefield that we all face every day. And what could bring someone closer to ground level?
Released Nationally May 29