Film Review: The Trip to Spain

An enjoyable though slightly lesser addition to the 'Trip' series.
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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon remain in fine form for The Trip to Spain, touring another half-dozen fancy European restaurants while trading comic insults and contending with the larger themes in life. The British comedians are as well matched as they were in their earlier Trip films, The Trip (2010) and The Trip to Italy (2014), their impersonations just as comically accurate, their rivalry just as comically silly, their fictionalized interpretations of themselves just as comically incisive. For the most part, Spain, directed as the others were by Michael Winterbottom, is another reliable installment. But all trips cannot be paradisiacal. With an ending that’s allowed to fizzle, and a heavier emphasis on the existentialism that’s present in all the films, The Trip to Spain lands a hair shy of its predecessors.

The film is once again edited down from a mini-series that first aired on British television. Once again, Coogan and Brydon visit restaurants they’ve been assigned to review, this time in Spain and for The New York Times (Coogan) and the English Observer (Brydon). It’s been several years since they last road-tripped, and the changes are significant: Rob has added a baby boy to his growing family and seen his star rise so high he’s now fielding calls from American agents, while Coogan is reveling in the success he enjoyed from the Oscar-winning Philomena, as well as smarting from all those who are not duly awed. They eat, sightsee and bicker, while doing impersonations that will be familiar to fans of the earlier films, notably their high-in-the-nose Michael Caines. But it’s the verbal pissing contests these impersonations serve that are the greatest delights of the film, and it’s worth the price of admission alone to watch Coogan do Mick Jagger as Hamlet.

There’s little to dislike about a movie that mixes clever comedy with sweeping foreign views and shots of decadent food. But The Trip films are not loose collections of gags and fledgling bits. Though the comedians’ repartee might lead one to hope otherwise, the Trip movies are only partly improvised. The storylines are clearly mapped out: Coogan struggles with the loneliness that accompanies egoistic ambition, while Brydon weathers the vagaries of domesticity. Melancholy dogs them, though it bites more assiduously at the heels of Coogan.

In Spain, Winterbottom and company have struck this note of existentialism harder than ever before. It would be unkind to give too much away, but there is a pair of surprise plot developments that leave no doubt “the circle of life” is something very much on their minds. What grates is the awfully neat nature of these twists, both of which pertain to Coogan, and which are arguably more contrived than any plot development that has come before. One such surprise may have worked; two is a bit too much. The nod toward existentialist angst is done much better when the film alludes to Don Quixote and repeats the Noel Harrison song “The Windmills of Your Mind.” These have the same thematic resonance as the “surprises” that greet Coogan, but are woven into the story in a more naturalistic manner.

Perhaps in service of this thematic insistence, the film ends on a down note at which we arrive after the pace of the story has slackened. In the first Trip, the film continues for a negligibly brief period of time after the comedians have separated; the second Trip concludes much more abruptly, while the comedians are still in Italy. In both instances, the movies draw to a close while our attention is still rapt. But in Spain, the film leaves us to follow Coogan and, to a lesser extent, Brydon, as separate characters for a longer period of time. Without the energy provided by their back-and-forth, the movie fizzles. The third act feels drawn out, so that, by the time we arrive at a surreal although thematically apropos ending, our energy, too, has fallen. Until then, The Trip to Spain enchants. But its ease and charm flag once the film begins to show just how hard it’s trying to make a point.

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