Unrated (PG-13 equivalent) | starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon | directed by Michael Winterbottom | 1hr 48mins |
Richard Linklater movies like Dazed and Confused gave birth to the Hang-Out Movie, where the fun of the film was just spending time hanging out with these characters. The Trip films, through spruced up in the style of a glossy European travelogue (intercut with sweeping helicopter shots of massive rolling hills) and a culinary tour (intercut with Food TV style shots of the chefs in the kitchen), are primarily powered by the fun of hang out with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon while they bicker, muse about mortality and try to one-up each other in celebrity impression-standoffs all over Europe. The Trip to Spain is more of the same, and more essentially viewed as a third part in a trilogy than as a stand-alone, so you’re mileage will vary based on how much you like this kind of thing. I, unabashedly, love it.
For the third outing, Coogan and Brydon take off for Spain again on a restaurant tour for Brydon writing for The Observer and for Coogan to retread a journey he took as a kid in preparation for writing his own book in the style of a Don Quixote adventure. This version of Steven Coogan is fresh off his Oscar nomination for (the terrific) Philomena and now both more arrogant and more vulnerable than ever. Brydon continues to bounce along, happy to just goof off and try to melt his old friend’s icy shield. Brydon’s big break audition for a Martin Scorsese film at the end of The Trip to Italy is never mentioned here.
For my money, The Trip to Italy was The Dark Knight of the series, not only brighter and funnier than The Trip, but such a pronounced statement of this series intentions that it elevated both films. Spain feels like a downshift. The locals are beautiful, the food is mouthwatering and the movie once again delivers two or three show-stoppingly funny scenes. It feels a bit tired because Coogan and Brydon feel a bit tired. It’s disappointing that it’s been so long we need to watch them warming up to each other again before the really great improv stuff comes out. But even then the story casts a dark cloud over the affair as Coogan’s heart (from events in this story) doesn’t seem into it. In a perfect offering of British cringe comedy Brydon and Coogan passive-agressively clash when Brydon’s desire to get laughs conflicts with Coogan’s desire to impress everyone with his knowledge of the Spanish Inquisition and the Moors.
When Coogan comes to life we get gold, once again going back to proven James Bond schtick and giving it another spin. We get side-splitting stuff of the duo as Sean Connery, Roger Moore and John Hurt. In a highlights, Brydon does Mick Jagger doing Michael Caine and Coogan competes with his more “peacocking” Jagger; Bond and his nemesis trade poison scallops in an uproarious scene and Coogan is imprisoned in a dream sequence by Brydon’s Marlon Brando during the Spanish Inquisition.
Those bits are fewer and far between this time, making it more obvious when the riffs don’t land. When this movie wants to be, it is hilarious, but Coogan, Brydon and trilogy director Michael Winterbottom seem to have loftier goals in mind for what they want to say with Spain, turning the series’ formula in on itself for something darker. Coogan starts the film high on Oscar nominee fumes with a sure-fire successor script he’s shopping around called “The Missing”. As if guided by the dark hand of fate itself, events conspire to then systematically strips his character of everything he has, both personally and professionally.
A prominent them of The Trip series has always been how Coogan and Brydon deal with their own mortality as men in their 50s. As Spain – possibly the last film in this series – clicks into it’s final act and Don Quixote illusions pile up, genuine tension starts to creep in that something actually devastating might happen to our heroes. The roulette ball of fate bounces from dark possibility to dark possibility and when the time runs out what it lands on is… bizarre. Head-slapping. The movie has saved it’s darkest note for last and while I’m all for that in theory, and time and reflection might prove Winterbottom right here, this feels like it’s out of a different film altogether.
What the movie ultimately says will spark debate, about the fate of it’s characters, about travelling through sites of historic bloodshed for adventure, about reality intruding on fantasy, about the fate of Europe. Or just a misplaced, mishandled shocker. Still, a challenge is always better than mediocrity and The Trip to Spain is worth seeing. Fans of this series will get even more great quotes to put in their back pocket. And if you haven’t seen The Trip yet, as Roger Moore would squeak out, “move!”.