We live in an era of cinema that’s often too reliant on sequels, on an endless churn of the same, formulaic stories pumped out year after year. But one franchise seems immune to the diminishing returns of multiple follow-ups: The Trip, a series of movies now on its third entry about two middle-aged British men eating very expensive dinners together. The Trip sticks to a rigid format, explores the unchanging dynamic between the performers Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (both playing semi-fictionalized versions of themselves), and has featured them doing extended dueling impressions of Michael Caine at each other in every film.
Somehow, The Trip to Spain, which opened in theaters Friday, might be the funniest movie yet in this curious little franchise, which marries improvised conversations with high-end food porn and Coogan’s blunt, particularly self-loathing brand of humor. The installments barely count as films at all—they’re cut-down versions of a sporadic, six-episodes-per-season television series that airs in the UK. But the director Michael Winterbottom, a movie veteran who enjoys blurring the lines between fiction and reality, makes each entry feel like a complete, satisfying narrative, even giving The Trip to Spain an absurd twist ending that pokes fun at the idea of producing another edition one day.
The rapport between Coogan and Brydon, longtime collaborators who also worked together on Winterbottom’s fourth-wall-breaking 2005 film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, holds fast in The Trip to Spain. Coogan is the international icon, a British comedy legend who has transcended the cult status TV shows like I’m Alan Partridge afforded him in the 1990s and become a major movie star. Or so he thinks—in each Trip, Coogan’s ego exceeds his actual celebrity, and he’s beset by annoying calls from his agents and managers haggling with him over future projects, reminding him that he’s mostly a pop-culture footnote in the United States.
Brydon, meanwhile, is far more settled in his life as a popular UK comedian, self-aware about his diminished stature compared to Coogan but charmingly content all the same. A master impressionist whose work as a stand-up, sitcom creator, and character actor has sustained him in Britain for some 25 years, Brydon frequently succeeds at inadvertently needling Coogan and bursting his bubble of self-importance, especially as they discuss the local cuisines and cultures of whichever region they’re traveling through.
In The Trip to Spain, Coogan is slightly more relaxed than in previous entries, seemingly buoyed by the success of his 2013 drama Philomena, which he starred in and co-wrote, and which netted him two Oscar nominations. His personal life in the movie remains chaotic, as he’s embroiled in an affair with a married actress (the films also feature fictionalized versions of Coogan’s son, and Brydon’s wife and children), but there’s a tinge of calm melancholy to his outlook. Both he and Brydon are now over the age of 50 and less interested in the melodrama of their younger years.
Watching Coogan and Brydon bounce off each other in the Trip films is the simplest of pleasures. The pair have a perfect combination of familiarity and playful desire for one-upmanship. Each joke premise suggested over dinner has to be plumbed to exhaustion; each celebrity impression, particularly their fascination with Caine, becomes a ridiculous joust, with the duo finding new nuances and physical details in their impersonations.
Brydon, in the past, has always come out on top in this regard, since Coogan’s comic skills rely on original characters and improvisation. But in The Trip to Spain, it’s clear that Coogan has been working hard behind the scenes: For the first time I genuinely thought he got the better of Brydon on a number of occasions. Aside from their little performances, Coogan and Brydon spend most of their time reflecting on their youth and trying to outdo each other’s historical knowledge of whatever town they’re in, with Coogan holding particular romantic, literary delusions of his life on the road (The Trip to Spain even has the pair dress up as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza at one point).
It’d be fair to say this all sounds insufferable—being trapped at the table with two comedians constantly trying to make the other laugh. But Coogan, Brydon, and Winterbottom have found the right way to balance out the silliness with introspection. The genius of Coogan’s career lies in his willingness to embrace the darker side of his personality. In the Trip films he’s not afraid to mock himself as an embittered prima donna and then let the audience see him struggle, behind the scenes, to get his next project off the ground. Brydon remains the ideal foil for Coogan and his wild mood swings, a sidekick whose happiness with his place in life consistently irritates his pal, to hilarious effect.
The films in this franchise are also just wonderful to look at, each taking in the rolling countryside of their settings (Northern England, Italy, and Spain) and the haute cuisine they eat along the way (the extended TV version is even heavier on the food porn). The Trip to Spain is, for the most part, a gentle, relaxing delight, with just enough uproarious conversation and a touch of regret. In other words, it’s a perfect piece of British comedy comfort food.
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