How many of us tolerate some of our friends rather than enjoy them? I’m certainly guilty of it. It’s an odd quirk of human behavior. None of us are perfect, so the ever-shifting equation of friendship is always a balance between the benefits of someone’s company versus how grating their worst traits are. Sometimes the equation gets out of balance, and we are either slow to notice, or we rationalize it because, hey, we’re not perfect either.
In a way, that dynamic is at the core of The Trip series of films, and it’s a dynamic that includes the audience. In 2010, director Michael Winterbottom got together with actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon to continue a collaboration the three started in 2005 with the marvelous picture Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. The result was a limited run, 6-episode BBC series called The Trip. It was such a success, they took the best bits from each episode and stitched them into a movie. Four years later, they did it again with The Trip to Italy, and now we have The Trip to Spain.
The set-up is ludicrously simple. One of the two actors (usually Coogan) calls the other, and says they’ve been offered a job by one publication or another to travel a bit of the world, sample food offerings at different restaurants, and write an article about the experience. This is one of the things I’ve come to enjoy most over the course of the series. In each film, it’s always: opening titles, 30-second phone call, and then we're on the road. Coogan and Brydon play heightened versions of themselves. As they road-trip from one city to the next, they ruminate on life and their careers. There is also more than enough time for the two men to comically riff off one another.
A less charitable viewer might be tempted to describe The Trip to Spain as the entry in the series that crosses over into “too much of a good thing” territory. Winterbottom, Coogan, and Brydon are quite comfortable with giving us more of what we saw in the original The Trip, and Italy. Don’t get me wrong, what they give us in all three is entertaining, and very funny. Still, Spain at times made me feel as irritated as Coogan or Brydon look when their counterpart refuses to drop an impersonation they are doing for laughs.
These movies are a hilarious showcase for the two performers’ dozens of celebrity imitations. Among the best are Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Hugh Grant, Roger Moore, and one that lasts mere seconds, but had me guffawing as it happened: Gore Vidal. Brydon is the better impersonator. His impressions feel fuller, more realized. Coogan gives his friend a run for his money, though, with his hilarious, over-the-top version of Mick Jagger.
It’s one of Brydon’s best, though, his Roger Moore, that had me identifying with Coogan’s irritation more than I suspect the filmmakers wanted. At one point late in the film, the two are having a conversation with Coogan’s assistant and a photographer over lunch. After the two men riff on the former James Bond’s seductive baritone voice, Coogan tries to make a point about the Moorish invasion of Spain. It’s a character trait – Coogan's penchant for making pretentious observations about history or nature – that he has a lot of fun with throughout the series. As he tries to talk, Brydon refuses to stop his Roger Moore impression, drowning out his friend, and derailing the conversation. It’s at this point in Spain that the law of diminishing returns becomes a factor.
An enjoyable aspect about these movies, especially for someone who’s never traveled to the locations featured in them, is their travelogue quality. Cinematographer James Clarke, who was on duty for both Italy and Spain, but not the original Trip, turns in stunning work. The vistas featured in Spain aren’t quite as dynamic as those of Italy, but they are gorgeous, and Winterbottom delights in showcasing the countryside as much as the cuisine or his actors’ comedic timing.
Underneath the laughs, there is also a subtle melancholy that has been a hallmark of the series. The trio have been at work on these movies for almost a decade now, and we’ve seen the leads age and mature, at least in some ways if not in others. We’ve seen them have both professional and personal victories as well as failures. Their quiet reactions are always heartfelt.
These are fictionalized versions of the actors, but Coogan has spoken about his attempt to blur the lines between reality and fantasy. So, while the specifics are probably made up, the emotional underpinnings have poignancy. Between the second entry in the series and this latest one, Coogan had what was probably his biggest success to date: co-writing, producing, and starring in the film Philomena, for which he received two Oscar nominations, one for Best Adapted Screenplay, and one for Best Picture. I was interested to see how the fictional Coogan, whom Brydon is always needling for his narcissism, would handle this huge accomplishment. I was not disappointed. Coogan mentions Philomena every chance he gets, and Brydon never fails to chime in with comic exasperation.
The Trip series is akin to a platonic version of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. It feels like checking in on old friends every couple of years. Yeah, they might get on your nerves from time to time, but you’re glad you were able to catch up, and you know that the next time they call, you’ll gladly agree to set up a future get-together.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
The Trip to Spain has a good balance of laughs and pathos, but not much new territory is covered in this third outing in the Trip series.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- In terms of comedy, nothing quite reaches the heights of Coogan and Brydon dissecting how Michael Caine's voice has changed over the years in The Trip. The Gore Vidal stuff comes close, though. And Brydon's Hugh Grant is pretty terrific.
- Since the pair are exploring Spain, the photo shoot they do to promote their travels involves them dressing up as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
- I would rank the three movies like this: (1) The Trip to Italy, (2) The Trip to Spain, (3) The Trip. A lot of that ranking has to do with the scenery. The last scene in The Trip to Italy, where Coogan and his son get on a boat at sundown to do some swimming off the Italian coast, is absolutely gorgeous.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Robert Pattinson continues his collaboration with indie directors (he's worked with the likes of David Cronenberg and David Michôd) in his new film, Good Time. Next, I'll be looking at the crime-drama, about a petty crook and his disabled brother and their crazy night in New York City.