If you haven’t seen the first two films in this series, The Trip (2010) and The Trip to Italy (2014), try to do it before seeing the third one. You won’t be lost or confused if you don’t; but the evolving relationship between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is nuanced, including their predictable, hilarious tendency to provoke one another.
The initial source material for the film is director Michael Winterbottom’s Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a sort of mockumentary about filming a costume drama starring Coogan and Brydon. Their constant one-upmanship in that film migrates very well to the Trip films; but unlike Tristram Shandy, the Trip stories are not set within the entertainment milieu, and so there’s a need to frame the plot with a “real” friendship, albeit a sometimes tense one. Under the sure hand of director Winterbottom, the thrilling vistas and moments of gastronomic beauty are, by design, supporting players in this ongoing journey, shared by two actors whose actual careers inform the dramatic details about their personal lives.
In The Trip – framed as a tour of fine restaurants in northern England for a writing assignment Coogan is doing – Brydon is invited along as an afterthought when Coogan’s girlfriend cancels on him. Both have careers doing mildly well, and one of the funniest scenes, in which the two actors try to outdo each other’s Michael Caine impressions, establishes their affectionate competitiveness. But Brydon tends to not know when to shut it off, compulsively riffing at inappropriate moments, creating some tension during The Trip to Italy. We see Coogan’s vanity and selfish behavior soften somewhat in The Trip to Italy, whereas Brydon’s down-to-earth family-man persona becomes slightly tarnished. We wonder, then, what sort of role reversal might take place this time around. The Trip to Spain continues to some extent where The Trip to Italy left off, and we wonder how much these men have or have not matured in the years between.
The film starts with a phone call from Coogan to Brydon, with Coogan immediately name dropping Scorsese in reference to his latest project, as well as mentioning his Oscar-nominated film Philomena. This set-up pays off later on with good-natured ribbing about Brydon’s relative lack of high-profile roles and Coogan’s need to flaunt his successes. Both based in London, Brydon is happily married with young children, while the divorced Coogan has a married girlfriend and an adult son who’s planning to join him at the end of the trip. Coogan is assigned another restaurant review article, and asks Brydon rather impulsively to come along. Brydon’s baby boy is crying loudly when the phone rings, and he’s overjoyed at the prospect of a week away. The two venture forth, by ferry and Range Rover, through the beautiful hills and valleys of various regions of Spain. Travel buffs and foodies will savor the various regional history and cuisine, but the main story is how looming middle age is treating these two friends with occasionally-intersecting careers.
A publicity shoot for the restaurant articles has a Don Quixote theme, coloring many of the jokes and imagery throughout. Coogan is also writing a book about his connection to Spain, and the parallels to Quixote’s aspirations and narcissism are notable. Keeping up with the constant literary, cinematic and pop culture references is daunting, and it’s funny to see both men go out of their way to secretly study the regions they travel through, outdoing each other with obscure travelogue tidbits. Despite his recent success, Coogan continues to display a restless arrogance: an effective foil to Brydon’s grounded family man. Brydon loves performing regardless of the size or status of the audience, whereas Coogan needs validation. Still, these scenes of thespian rivalry are stunning: Michael Caine once again makes an appearance, and one music-themed volley that I won’t give away is brilliant and moving.
There are some stylistic and narrative elements present here that break out of the franchise mold a bit. The funny yet haunting history-themed dreams that Coogan has are catalyzed by his own existential crises and reminiscences of his youth, converging in this land of vast landscapes and rich culture. The ending feels part cliff-hanger, part poetic justice, and altogether odd, but made me hunger for the next course.