Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's latest rambling comedy tour, The Trip to Spain, might come off in the previews as a stale, egotistical movie full of chatter and worn-out impressions—but like the previous films in the series, it offers the right mixture of melancholia and laughter by poking fun at the grandiose, sometimes destructive tendencies of the central characters.
The franchise, directed by Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, Wonderland, 24 Hour Party People), is based on a semi-improvised BBC2 TV program in which Coogan and Brydon (both British comedians, both great at impressions, one much cheerier than the other) go on gorgeous, literary-inspired food tours. Each of the three movies in the series is edited down from a six-episode television season, upping the pace of the film versions and adding some urgency to the duo's incessant jabber.
The first movie, The Trip (2011), takes Coogan and Brydon to Northern England, where they play versions of themselves riffing, impersonating Michael Caine, gorging on scallops, and reciting poetry in the former homes of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Coogan had planned on taking his sort-of girlfriend Mischa along, but she (unsurprisingly, from the state of their relationship) backed out at the last minute. So the comedians begrudging play the odd couple under the flimsy pretense that Coogan is writing something for the Observer. Coogan extends his graceful invitation: "I've asked other people, but they're all too busy."
The Trip isn't about food at all—it's an afterthought, a decoration. Instead, the film grapples with the recurring themes of identity and purpose by setting up a Coogan vs. Brydon cage match, in which their respective careers and lifestyles are portrayed as polar opposites: Coogan is dating, fucking, grasping, reaching, pursuing stardom and artistic fulfillment, while Brydon is content with his lucrative comedy career and stable family. Neither of them wants to be on this journey, and a bit too much effort is put into making them seem like rivals. Because the duo's appeal lies in their easy chemistry, their neurotic and salty jabs quickly become tedious. But the laughs keep coming and are still strong. One of the movie's best moments is when Coogan, failing to imitate Brydon's famous "Small Man in a Box" vocal affect, looks in the mirror and quietly says, "I don't care about silly voices," and then smiles weakly as his eyes well up with tears.
The second installment is The Trip to Italy, and it's funnier, breezier, and smarter. This film breaks down the Coogan/Brydon dichotomy, complicating Brydon's role as the model(ish) husband and father and giving him the chance to play a more believable and complicated character. Coogan and Brydon retain most of their snarky wit, but their barbs are a little softer and more good-natured. The very brief glimpses of Italian food look delicious. Even the landscape is brighter. And while The Trip had a number of historical and literary influences, The Trip to Italy relies on the pair's fascination with Byron and Shelley, and the recitations (which often double as impressions) are pure fun.
The literary references take center stage in the most recent and strongest installment, The Trip to Spain, which presents Coogan and Brydon as versions of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. In their travels through both England and Italy, they've explored questions of mortality and purpose while poring through the words and histories of some of society's greatest authors, walking on the same floors as the great writers did, saying their great words aloud. They like to stay in the same rooms that famous people have slept in, they quietly compare their experiences to the lives of people with notable names, they keep track of every time they're recognized in public, and they openly discuss their relative levels of stardom. Brydon boasts that David Bowie followed him on Twitter before his death; Coogan awkwardly and obliviously informs a waitress that he was nominated for an Oscar. They survive on grandiosity, and Don Quixote's hubristic quest is a perfect parallel.
But their haughty self-confidence is only funny because it's accompanied by paralyzing self-doubt. It seeps into their interactions and meaning-of-life discussions. At one point, Coogan and Brydon, now both in their 50s, emphatically repeat "We're in the prime of our lives!" to each other over and over again, with wide eyes and a firm tone, until they believe it. Coogan is especially great at conveying the carefully balanced ego of a comedian, ricocheting between arrogance and self-loathing. He loves giving lectures on history and geography but hates receiving them; he mumbles in response to Brydon's successes and his eyes glimmer with delight at the mention of his friend's failures.
The Trip to Spain is more cinematic and plot-driven than the previous films. It also focuses more on Coogan than Brydon, to the point where the final section of the film features Coogan traveling alone through Spain and North Africa, aimlessly trying to make a life-altering decision. The ending is deeply bizarre and entirely unexpected—I won't spoil it—but it works as a jab at Coogan and his idealistic self-importance.
If you're truly interested in the details of regional cuisine, this series will be disappointing. But it works as a very funny take on the way comedians entertain themselves, an exploration of midlife crises, a meditation on history and meaning, a collection of strange but well-executed voices and impressions, and a decidedly un-sappy celebration of friendship. It's smart but light. If The Trip's high-strung chatter grated on you, give Coogan and Brydon another shot with The Trip to Spain—their formula is changing, and for the better.