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Once an actor reaches a particular level of success, there’s a nesting-doll of performances required of them: The ones they give onscreen have to be accompanied by the performance they present of themselves. This is, of course, no surprise; actors’ images have been forcibly tailored for public consumption since the advent of the studio system. As behind-the-scenes secrets become advertising and press tours obligatory, a public persona is as necessary as the performance itself. For an example of the endless double-act in question, look no further than the stars of the Marvel franchise, because whatever their actual level of enthusiasm for the superhero juggernaut, their job as Enthusiastic Actors has become as integral a part of their work as the actual films.

In The Trip to Italy, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon tackle this head-on by revisiting—for the third time—their roles as slightly sideways versions of themselves. Both are already known for some degree of public selfhood: As well as being actors, both men are comedians, a sweet spot of being someone else in the guise of yourself, and the movie is a sequel to The Trip, in which they tackled the gastronomy of England’s North as “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon.” However, they first appeared together in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, as similar contentious versions of themselves, locked in one another’s begrudging orbit as actors competing for the larger role in their film adaptation-within-a-mockumentary.

It’s a fascinating double performance, a more vicious iteration of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Both of them play into and against public perception of themselves, a winking exaggeration of the real. Coogan is the irascible discontent who hasn’t let go of his dreams of stardom, while Brydon is the more affable and contented half, whose career takes off in The Trip to Italy. (Perhaps the most meta scene in either of the Trip movies is the one in which Rob Bryon-as-Rob Brydon makes an in-character audition tape for a role in a major movie.) And neither part’s a particularly flattering caricature. “Steve” and “Rob” are both still chasing youth through women and competition with one another, often in impressions of other people, in case they needed another layer to disappear into. They’re also experts at directly skewering one another, so pointedly that the humor occasionally becomes hard to watch. But The Trip to Italy keeps itself from being just a Round Two of existing grievances by approaching those barbs as a softer, more melancholy attempt to connect. They never stop the one-upsmanship, of course, but in Italy, things take a more contemplative turn, as if things unknown have been forgiven offscreen. This time, as Brydon mimics a talk show host reviewing the piecemeal successes of Coogan’s career, Coogan has no returning strike, and settles for cracking up.

Whether their friendship extends offscreen is of minimal importance, technically. As with any pair of leads, chemistry is more important than verity, and the surrounding roles remind us we’re watching the play, not the making-of. But the uncanny valley they’ve established between themselves and their alter egos becomes the quiet unknown hovering beneath The Trip to Italy. It brings depth to throwaway comments (“You believe he’s living it; you don’t believe he’s acting”) and gives weight to the ironies of pretending to be “oneself.” When they stand before Edward John Trelawny’s grave, accusing him of being a Byron hanger-on, there’s a poignancy as they read from his tombstone: “These are two friends whose lives were undivided.” Though the Trip series isn’t operating at the deliberately staged remove of Tristram Shandy, watching the pair of them in the Trip duology is just as effective a treatise on the falseness of acting like yourself. Rather than trying to be honest, the Trips are a reminder that celebrity is a performance all its own.

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