'The Trip to Spain'
It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely franchise than Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s ‘The Trip’. It began as a lark, an improvisational comedy hinged on a road trip and conversations with two great improvisers that was helmed by one of the most underrated and experimental directors in England. It was conceived as a TV series that was condensed to a feature film for international release and proved to be so successful that it spawned a sequel and now a threequel. While there may be a slight fatigue to the formula in this third chapter, at least everyone involved seems to agree.
Once again, the story kicks off with Steve Coogan inviting Rob Brydon on a road trip of fine European restaurants and historical sites. The first round was based in Britain, the second took place in Italy, and now the pair find themselves cavorting across Spain. After infidelity and nerves spoiled his marriage last time, Rob is content with his family and no longer has a wandering eye. Steve, on the other hand, is in an even deeper existential crisis than usual. His career is slipping, making him even more concerned about finding gigs and stroking his ego than he was in the previous movies (and he wasn’t exactly in a position of stability in those either). That leads to plenty of the expected bickering, impressions, and beauty shots of European tranquility that have defined the series to date.
Unfortunately, the scenario also has a certain sense of “Been there, done that.” Are the impressions fun? Of course they are. The old standbys like Roger Moore and Michael Caine return, but this time Mick Jagger is the main voice battered about repeatedly. Brydon’s Mick is hysterical because of how cartoonish it is, while Coogan’s is chillingly accurate as always (to say nothing of his career-spanning take on David Bowie or his almost terrifying Robert De Niro). However, since the pair have been doing this game for so long, it can get a bit weary. It’s been an ongoing joke that the comedians irritate each other by doing impressions to death, and for the first time the audience might feel the same way.
Of course, that almost fits into the piece, which feels more melancholy than ever before. Coogan’s perpetual existential crisis has grown from delusional to pathetic and his self-loathing portrayal of himself in ‘The Trip to Spain’ rivals Alan Partridge for a darkly comedic take on middle age malaise and failure. It’s painful to watch him beg for work and complain about his lot in life. It helps that Rob is in a far happier place this time and provides nothing but levity to the proceedings. Like the first ‘Trip’, he’s a bouncing ball of comedic energy that brings life to Coogan’s simmering sad sack. Their chemistry together manages to carry the film purely on their improvised conversations in a way that few actors could muster. As before, a couple other characters orbit in and do little beyond giving the main comedians new inspirations and audiences.
Michael Winterbottom shoots the Spanish locations and high end restaurants with a certain beauty and class that lends the film a cinematic sheen. However, the location feels less relevant than ever before. The ‘Trip’ series has always been defined by the Coogan/Brydon show, but this one is even more so. Spain is mostly a backdrop to their egos, observations, insults and impressions. Thankfully, it ensures that Winterbottom always has something pretty to frame the actors in, but it almost feels like the location was chosen at random and with little purpose.
Ultimately, ‘The Trip to Spain’ feels like a victory lap rather than a necessary continuation. The trio of Brits made two damn fine comedies out of a simple concept. The fact that the third is mildly disappointing isn’t too surprising. It’s impressive that it works at all and the painful melancholy that’s always been under the surface of these trips feels more prominent and meaningful than before. Although magic still happens whenever Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon get together, next time they should come up with a new theme. They’ve pushed this concept about as far as it can go. Perhaps melancholy is an appropriate note to go out on. We’ve all had a damn entertaining ride over the course of these three movies, but it’s probably time to wrap it up, or at least wait until a more substantial inspiration strikes the collaborators.