The third installment of Michael Winterbottom’s “Trip” series, The Trip to Spain is pleasant and genuinely funny, with darker undertones than its predecessors.
Like the previous two installments, The Trip to Spain is a faux documentary that edits a BBC mini-series down to feature length. It again follows Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing versions of themselves as they sample local cuisine and landscapes behind improvised banter ranging from clever to hilarious. Impersonations are again the comedic center of the film both when they hit and when they misfire. Again, between the road-trip sing-alongs and dueling Michael Caines, the film juxtaposes the characters’ contact with their lives outside the trip: “Brydon” joyously facetimes with his family and “Coogan” manages a successful career he is unable to enjoy because his ego refuses to find the minor humiliations he endures funny, though this only makes them funnier for us.
All these “agains” make this sequel a fine an entry point for anyone who has not seen the previous two films, but will also most likely divide audiences and critics. No one could be blamed for feeling that a structure that felt so fresh with the first Trip has turned formulaic, but for this viewer the film achieves something potent in its very repetitions. An obvious comparison with Linklater’s work offers itself, yet whereas the Before trilogy or Boyhood derive their power from the changes time works, nothing much changes for these characters—within themselves or in their relationship. In this, the film would seem to take the series’ own substitution of pleasantry for more meaningful connections as its subject. For in everything—the travel (including some gorgeous landscape photography), the epicureanism, the cultural tourism (Cervantes and Shakespeare figure heavily here), even the friendship between the leads—the pleasant enjoyment of sendup riffs trumps anything with depth or seriousness. And whereas “Coogan’s” loneliness added melancholy to the previous films, which ended much sadder than they played, now his almost militant insecurities drain the sweetness and leave a bitter aftertaste. Even Coogan and Brydon’s friendship fails to develop beyond pleasant rivalry. Brydon, whose connection to home and family seems to have deepened after his meandering in The Trip to Italy and has made him capable of enjoying the success of mediocrity, does not really need a deeper friendship, and Coogan is too narcissistic to want one.
Dark presences lurk behind much of the friends’ breezy banter. A history and present of violence and misunderstanding between the Christian West and Islam is both raised and dismissed, at one point with charming impersonations of Brando’s Torquemada, at another with with puns on The Moors and a Roger Moore steamroller, only to return in the film’s bizarre ending. The duo, having crossed the fifty threshold, remain obsessed with aging. The insistence early in the film that they won’t “go full Mick Jagger” and have children at seventy-two, or shade thrown on Charlie Chaplin for “knocking them out in his eighties” are tinged with a bit too much admiration at extended male potency for comfort. And although the send-ups of every serious topic are always funny, at length the failure to take anything at all seriously becomes avoidance, a fact signaled when Brydon point blank asks if they can not talk about ISIS.
None of this should give the impression that movie is not pleasant or funny. That Brydon and Coogan remain charming and that the laughs roll easily throughout the hour and forty-five minutes means instead that the film draws no firm line between its celebration of wit and ease and its satire of elite white masculinity.
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Running Time: 110 minutes
Andrew Strycharski teaches in the English Department and Directs the Film Studies Program at Florida International University