By now, you should know what to expect from Michael Winterbottom’s Trip franchise — namely the consumption of rapier repartee and haute cuisine in privileged places, 86ing the suspense, romance and action that provide structure to most entertainment product.
For three television series turned films, the director has sent versions of his convivial, real-life stars, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, to Northern England, then Italy and now Spain, ostensibly to review restaurants and promote their latest ventures, but really to chat about life and showbiz. The docudrama vibe of the series, with its enviable itineraries and improvisatory screenplays, has cast its shadow on everything from the loose-limbed banter of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to the culinary tourism of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. The scripts overflow with the duo’s trove of high and low cultural references, some you’ll get, others you won’t. The series is as niche-y and targeted as the Tyler Perry films; you could say it plays to its base.
The Trip to Spain doesn’t deviate much from the successful formula of its predecessors, but its experimental detours are striking. On the familiar front, we’re treated to an expectedly hilarious handful of Coogan and Brydon’s dueling impressions, from Mick Jagger to David Bowie to John Hurt, with Robert De Niro, Woody Allen and Michael Caine thrown in like greatest hits at the end of a singer’s set list.
But the food, a central element in the previous Trips, recedes into the periphery as its travelers amble deeper into the mountainous enclaves and sun-dappled cathedrals of Aragon, Rioja and Andalucia, among other vivifying regions. This is also the only Trip film that ends on an unequivocal dramatic cliffhanger, in the spirit of longer-form television.
Most substantively, there’s more character development sprinkled among and between the duo’s sportive dialogues. Coogan learns that his longtime U.S. agent has departed the firm, and has not asked Steve to join his new company. Meanwhile, his script for a prestigious bit of awards bait called Missing has been handed off to an “up and coming” writer for some “polishing.” “But I’ve up and come!” Coogan retorts, in full-on Larry David bluster.
Both men, now in their 50s, must come to terms with aging out of the film industry’s most lucrative roles, and the bruised egos and sharp insecurities this reality has fostered. For Steve, this means living off the fading glories of Philomena while proving unable to top it; in the film’s most revealing sad-funny interlude, he desperately volunteers his Oscar nomination to a Spanish bartender who wouldn’t know him from Adam.
Steve’s personal life is no less in flux, as his younger girlfriend and his 20-year-old son both drop paradigm-shattering bombshells by the film’s end. Rob, content but occasionally overwhelmed by the healthy nuclear family he maintains in England, sees his creative fortunes rise while Steve’s dip.
The Trip to Spain is an interior journey as much an external one, subtly accumulating dramatic weight, as any evolving franchise should. And like the previous entries in the series, it has literary precedent. While The Trip to Italy saw its travelers retrace the steps of the Romantic poets, Coogan aims to traverse the path of 20th-century British poet Laurie Lee.
Yet the overarching inspiration is Cervantes, whose Don Quixote lurks perpetually beneath the film’s text like a coat of primer. Early on, traversing the countryside in a rented Range Rover, Steve and Rob croon Noel Harrison’s “Windmills of Your Mind,” and later submit to a silly promotional photo shoot dressed as Quixote and Sancho Panza. Occasionally Winterbottom lays on the Coogan-as-Quixote comparison too thickly, through a series of unnecessary dream sequences that underline what the organically evolving conversations already reveal.
Toward the beginning of the film, while awaiting an entree, Rob suggests that in Cervantes’ world, Steve is indeed Quixote, the head-in-the-clouds idealist, and that he’s Sancho, his dependable sidekick. But this series works as well as it does because both characters skirt traditional roles. The old vaudevillian archetypes of comic and foil, sophisticate and fool, are not present here. Rob is not the Karl Pilkington to Steve’s Ricky Gervais. They’re essentially equals, navigating the same playing field, and coping with the same middle-age crises with competition and comradeship — traits that, as they remind us once again, are inseparable.
THE TRIP TO SPAIN. Director: Michael Winterbottom; Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Marta Barrio, Rebecca Johnson; Distributor: IFC; Opens: Today at the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, Cinema Paradiso Hollywood, O Cinema Miami Beach, the Tower Theater in Miami and the Landmark at Merrick Park. It opens Sept. 1 at Movies of Lake Worth, Movies of Delray and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton.