The third film in this witty franchise examines what it means to be a middle-aged male in western culture.
Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip to Spain” offers a rare thing – a sequel that honors and enriches what came before it.
Once again, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, take a road trip across Europe. They eat at fine dining establishments, engage in bouts of dueling accents and nurture a chemistry that is founded on genuine friendship and constant one-upmanship.
There are other things that happen, as life from outside the trip is always intruding and the men must deal with career and personal challenges while on the road. Much of what we’re seeing is improvised and much of it is hilarious and warmly engaging.
Following the England-based film “The Trip” (2010) and “The Trip to Italy” (2014), the third film (which, like the others, was a TV series edited down to a most agreeable length) doesn’t change the formula a wit. The dialog-driven tale overflows with witty observations, spot-on celebrity impressions and shots of mouth-watering cuisines. It’s all founded on the the best friend/annoying-little-brother comedy team of two master thespians/natural hams.
The winning formula holds up in “The Trip to Spain,” which nonchalantly sets its premise in motion. Once again, the actors are sent on a writing assignment together. This time they’re covering various eateries throughout Spain. At some point, they’ve agreed to pose for a picture as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
In full disclosure, I’ve found most of Winterbottom’s films to be forgettable or missing a key ingredient. I didn’t enjoy “Jude,” “A Mighty Heart,” “The Claim,” “9 Songs,” “24 Hour Party People,” “Code 46,” Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” or “The Killer Inside.” All boast bold qualities but didn’t entirely work.
That is, until “The Trip.”
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Coogan is Winterbottom’s most frequent collaborator and, by adding the rascally Brydon (who, like Coogan, is enormously talented), the three have created a durable, reliably funny and very entertaining trilogy.
“The Trip to Spain,” like the previous (and arguably funniest) installment, focuses a great deal on the subject of getting older and being a parent. Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” is an obvious thematic spring board the film leaps off of (and goes so far to suggest Coogan is especially Quixote-ian in the final moments).
There’s also a lovely, fitting nod to “The Windmills of Your Mind” and ruminations on what life after fifty has in store, both for those who embrace the age and those who dread it.
Fans of these films will likely only care about one thing and I’ll be careful not to give it away completely. The many impressions Coogan and Brydon unfurl at one another (for easy laughs and thespian bragging rights).
FAST FACT: ‘The Trip’ star Rob Brydon’s fictitious infidelity in the trilogy’s second film caused some confusion off-screen at his child’s school.
The highlights include Roger Moore, David Bowie, John Hurt, Woody Allen, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. Celebrity impersonations can often come across like tired, parlor game opportunities to show off. In the hands of our two leads, it’s an art form, a tribute and an uproarious example of how to do it the right way.
Of the many great conversations that the audience is privy to, I especially enjoyed the commentary on Brando as Torquemada in the forgotten “Christopher Columbus – The Discovery,” a discussion on dinosaurs, Coogan’s elevated status post-“Philomena,” and Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Pablo Picasso.
The bits that made me laugh the hardest are Brydon’s reveal that David Bowie was a fan of his and Brydon’s suggestion that Coogan hook up with an old flame on the road.
The “Trip” films, even as fictitious comedies, provide amusing commentary on the status of the star’s then-current notoriety. In the first film, Coogan is shaggy-haired, adored for portraying Alan Partridge and for starring in Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” but struggling to become a film star in America.
Likewise, in “The Trip,” Brydon admits to being best known for his celebrated vocal trick, “Man in a Box.” Now, as middle-aged fathers and finding greater career success (indeed, it’s great to see Coogan past the “Around the World in 80 Days” chapter of his film career), Coogan and Brydon offer something much deeper, though still amusingly prickly, in their onscreen journeys of self fulfillment.
Seeing “The Trip to Spain” without having encountered the first two is acceptable, as each film stands fine on its own. However, like our two road trippers, you want to take in each adventure, savor the succulent ingredients and guffaw each time a Michael Caine impression is brought to yet another absurd level of exactness.