Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are on the road again, edging into middle age. Their third 'Trip' still tastes good, but it's less filling.
“The Trip to Spain” is the third entry in the cult series of culinary road comedies featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as thinly fictionalized versions of their scalding, misanthropically funny, showbiz-fixated London-comedian-actor selves. The first thing to say about the film is that it’s utterly of a piece with “The Trip” (2010) and “The Trip to Italy” (2014); if you’re a fan of the first two movies, it’s hard to imagine that you won’t like this one. (Each is a boiled-down version of a six-episode TV series made for the BBC, all of them directed by Michael Winterbottom.) This time, Coogan and Brydon spend five days driving up the misty green Spanish coastline, staying in rustic designer hotels and sampling New Traditional restaurants — which Brydon has arranged to review for The New York Times — against a backdrop of absurdly tranquil and picturesque towns and villages.
The leisurely lunches, all shot with documentary food-porn fetishism as the dishes are seared and steamed in high-end kitchens (scallops with caviar! shrimp cooked in sauces of tangy herbal divinity!), form a succulent backdrop. But the main stage, as always, is Coogan, his natty parrot-lipped handsomeness now looking a bit weathered, and Brydon, the shovel-faced Welsh cutup, as they try to outdo each other with their scandalously on-target impersonations of famous actors. They also take the holy piss out of each other.
The two razz and tweak and needle, cutting each other’s egos down to size with the surgical precision of professional rivals who have been frenemies for long enough to keep a record of every weak point and career setback. (At every meal, the secret sauce is schadenfreude.) As surely as Coogan draws pointed reference to “Philomena,” the Oscar-nominated middlebrow heart-tugger he costarred in with Judi Dench and also co-wrote, and how it changed the course of his career, Brydon must, of course, point out that the number of times Coogan calls attention to that movie reveals just how desperate he is.
The impersonations, it has to be said, don’t generate as many comic highs as before. The sequence in “The Trip” where Coogan and Brydon did their dueling Michael Caines was the single funniest movie moment in decades, and in “The Trip to Italy,” Brydon turned his hilariously authentic Pacino — the Loud Voice Al version, all angry grimace and hoarse bluntness — into an emasculated daddy’s expression of his inner apeman. Most of the vintage Coogan/Brydon impressions pop up here (Caine and Pacino, Sean Connery, Woody Allen), but it’s inevitable that they’re starting to feel like golden oldies. The comic shock and awe is gone, and there’s just a token of novel high points.
Mick Jagger comes in for some ribbing, which sounds like a less-than-cutting-edge target, except that Coogan deconstructs Jagger with such uproarious pouty effrontery that you could watch him do it all day. There’s also a surreal sequence in which the two impersonate the late David Bowie, in his mellifluous deep vibrato, singing about whether he should follow Brydon on Twitter, as well as a luscious bit in which they debate the legacy of the Spanish Moors in the voice of…Roger Moore. It’s brilliantly daft. The two really do need to find some more up-to-date targets (as when, during the last film, they skewered Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in “The Dark Knight Rises”), but “The Trip to Spain” sustains the idea of impersonation as a kind of comic life force: I channel a legendary voice, therefore I am.
Coogan and Brydon are now in their early fifties (both were born in 1965), and the banter in “The Trip to Spain” is haunted by the triple whammy of aging, failure, and mortality. Coogan, who satirizes his beady-eyed narcissism by serving it up to the nth degree, knows that he has edged out of leading-man age and status, becoming more of a writer, but the way the film tells it, even his “Philomena” heat has dissipated; his manager is dropping him, and his ambitious new script is about to get a “polish” from some younger hack. The Coogan we see is still playing the role of the witty sexy actor-stud genius, but life is closing in on him.
Brydon, meanwhile, now has two kids and a cozy settled life that he admits is boring. As characters, these two have become the yin and yang of middle-class masculinity in the 21st century. “The Trip to Spain,” which includes much banter about Cervantes, plays with the notion of Coogan as Don Quixote, tilting at windmills of selfish pleasure, and Brydon as Sancho Panza, the domesticated lump who accepts his lot. The two drive along singing “The Windmills of Your Mind,” a song the movie treats, rather touchingly, as a wistful expression of the illusory nature of growing older.
The “Trip” films have become the ultimate hang-out movies, and the longevity of the series is now part of what its fans relish. That “The Trip to Spain” is unabashedly more of the same is good news…but not entirely good news. The movie, like its predecessors, was largely improvised by Coogan and Brydon, and whatever flaws are baked into their method of working now seem intrinsic to the films’ flaky, made-up-on-the-spot charm. Yet the series has never been more haunted by something deeper and darker than comedy. That’s all right — a series should deepen. But because “The Trip to Spain” is in greater touch with the pitfalls of existence, the scrappiness of how the film was thrown together is now a little frustrating.
It all culminates on a note that feels bizarre: Coogan, alone on a Mediterrean highway, confronted by the arrival of what looks like a caravan of Islamic terrorists. By his own description, they’re the modern Moors. The freeze-frame at the end is a classic case of “Sorry, but we just didn’t know how to end this.” Sorry, but that isn’t good enough. At this point, I almost wish that Coogan, Brydon, and Winterbottom would take all that tossed-off noodling and massage into a real script. They might find that they get to have their gourmet improv comedy and eat it too.