The Trip to Spain

(2017) ** 1/2 Unrated
108 min. IFC Films. Director: Michael Winterbottom. Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Marta Barrio.

/content/films/5073/1.jpgThe recipe remains the same in The Trip to Spain, the third in a series initiated by 2010’s The Trip and continued in 2014’s The Trip to Italy. Take comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, knead them into “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon,” bake them into a foodie travelogue, and season to director Michael Winterbottom’s taste with comic banter and personal woes. If the dish has lost its pizazz, it remains comfort food for comedy connoisseurs.

Though not exactly a valid excuse for the films’ slapdash feel, it’s worth remembering that each film has been pared down to a feature from six television episodes broadcast on U.K. television. In most respects, The Trip to Spain demonstrates diminishing returns: we’ve seen it all before, and better, in the previous two entries. That makes the third film best for die-hard fans of the talent (or the series), or for those who skipped both previous films. Anyone in between can take a pass.

Winterbottom wastes no time establishing the premise. In the first scene, “Coogan” calls up “Brydon” and asks if he’d like to go off again on a fine-dining tour, sponsored by newspapers; he would, and off they go. As usual, the men occasionally get on Skype or the phone to deal with career travails and familial discomforts, but most of the running time finds the two friends entertaining or annoying each other, in a heightened version of their real-life friendship.

Since Coogan is the bigger star, his character’s problems get a bit more play. He’s a single dad, still playing the field, while Brydon’s enjoying a break from his generally pleasing domestic life. Coogan enjoys an internationally prominent career, so his pressure to maintain contrasts to Brydon idly wondering if he should step up his ambitions. The two men share one significant worry: what it means to be fifty (they quickly agree they’re in their prime of life)

The minor dramas don’t find much purchase in Spain, but the characters’ insecurities prove as vivid as ever. Fragile egos prod each man to constantly try to one-up the other—who has the best cabin, the best historical anecdote, the best John Hurt impression—and when one preens or boasts, the other takes him down a peg (perhaps, unconsciously, their mirrored need for such checks and balances is what keeps them friends). Coogan keeps pretentiously insisting he'll write a book about the trip modeled on Laurie Lee's As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, while Brydon keeps dripping acid wit on the notion.

At their best, they run with each other’s comic premises with a seemingly improvisational flair (an impromptu sketch on the Spanish Inquisition being a highlight); at their worst, they obnoxiously break into dueling impressions. The recently departed Roger Moore gets a particular workout this time, with Marlon Brando and Mick Jagger close behind. In these sequences, Spain finds the series at its most tiresome, and the filmmakers attempt to wriggle out of the necessity by commenting on it: a “Spanish Flea” singalong seems deliberately, self-reflexively annoying, and in one pointed scene, Brydon runs his Moore impression into the ground.

Coogan's long enjoyed the pompous absurdity and the kitschy catchiness of "The Windmills of Your Mind," which amusingly recurs through Spain. Indeed, what people will mostly remember about The Trip to Spain is its Cervantes motif, an obvious joke that through repetition seeps to some depth: Coogan’s Quixote and Brydon’s Sancho Panza—like every human who keeps on living—try not to get lost (in La Mancha) while fighting the good fight to make sense of an absurd and trying life.

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