You could have convinced me to drive all over England’s North Country with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon; you’d have met zero resistance getting me to join their lively sojourn along Italy’s Western shores. But after seeing The Trip to Spain, you would have had to hold a gun to my head to get me to accompany the pair on their tour of Spain. The duo’s latest road movie is a picture to savor at a distance rather than up close, an exercise in rankling dissatisfaction that you might well feel guilty watching. If The Trip and The Trip to Italy eventually land their leading men in places of warmth, mutual understanding and fellowship, The Trip to Spain takes them to a destination far less certain and more unpleasant, though no less hilarious.
Chafed male relationships are central to The Trip series, of course; Coogan and Brydon have traded barbs over Michelin Star meals on and off since the turn of the decade, each in turn jealous and contemptuous of one another for their successes, whether personal or professional. Conviviality isn’t left off the menu entirely; director Michael Winterbottom just prefers to serve reconciliation somewhere between the halfway mark and the end of these films, using moments of good humor as major turning points in Coogan’s interactions with Brydon. One moment, they communicate chiefly through exasperation. The next, they’re sauntering through Pompei as they quote The Bounty, or gleefully taking the piss out of Art Parkinson and Michael Bublé. It doesn’t take much for Coogan to surrender his self-seriousness to Brydon’s indefatigable charm.
Not quite so in The Trip to Spain. Maybe the problem is the fictionalized Coogan, unable or unwilling to let go of his delusions of grandeur regarding his acting career. Or maybe it’s really Brydon, who no longer feels as obligated to endure Coogan’s prickly self-aggrandizement. Either way, whoever’s to blame, there’s an air of unrest that pervades The Trip to Spain, setting the film apart from its comparatively sunnier predecessors. (Aside: The problem may actually lie with the film’s utterly bananatown ending, though I saw a longer cut of the film at Independent Film Festival Boston, and I’m not sure if that’s the ending Winterbottom kept for The Trip to Spain’s theatrical release.) Coogan is more condescendingly cool than normal, and Brydon’s typical cheer has apparently been deadened in the intervening years since their Italy adventure.
But that’s okay. Time goes on, people get older, their circumstances change, and traditions that begin as harmless larks for which we’re ill-suited become respites from the crushing realities of everyday adult life. That, at least, is what I think Winterbottom means to articulate by opening on a beleaguered Brydon, gratefully accepting Coogan’s taunting invitation to trek over Spain with him, his youngest child squalling in the background. Where the duo’s first two trips were just expense-paid journeys to superb restaurants nestled among peerless destination spots, The Trip to Spain is an escape plan. It doesn’t matter that Coogan and Brydon lack even a shred of requisite experience for writing restaurant reviews or road trip editorials (beyond that which they’ve lucked into acquiring twice before). The driving joke of their previous ventures no longer applies: If this was their first trip, if they’d never been to north England or Italy, they’d be as eager, if not more so, to take on the task.
That’s a bit of a sobering thought for a comedy franchise, and perhaps I’m overselling the weight of The Trip to Spain’s collected ennui. All the same, denying that ennui is nigh-impossible, though if this is a more bitter version of the type of movie Winterbottom has twice made with Coogan and Brydon, it’s no less rapturous in the height and sheer variance of its humor and its wanton food porn. Granted, Coogan and Brydon are too busy stuffing their faces and giving each other shit to unpack anything meaningful from the incredible array of cuisine set before them over the course of The Trip to Spain’s running time, but if you’re the curious sort you might learn a thing or two about Spain’s culture and history before Coogan mansplains it to you.
Ultimately, fans of the previous two films will get all they crave from The Trip to Spain, which feels like something of a rarity in franchising: These movies have yet to fizzle out and lose their appeal or run out of creative space to explore, and frankly, because they use the lives of two very real people as their bases, they probably never will. Proteins will be grilled, veggies roasted, sauces blended, and all will be served together to delight the palates of our intrepid, unqualified food critics. Impressions will be offered—of Michael Caine, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Roger Moore, among others. James Bond will be the object of our heroes’ nostalgia, and in point of fact The Trip to Spain has what is arguably the best Bond riff Coogan and Brydon have made to date, this time involving a pair of suspect scallops. (For that matter, it also has the best Roger Moore gag to date—the greatest send-off the late actor could possibly have hoped for from one of his most devoted imitators.)
But along with the components of The Trip to Spain that we most crave, there’s an increase in harshness, an acerbic edge that’s hard to ignore. The fictionalized personae that Brydon and Coogan adopt in these films always butt heads, always take cheap shots at each other even when they know they probably shouldn’t. Jests and japes aren’t new to their brand. Here, those insults take on less civil dimensions as amicability wilts. Whether this makes The Trip to Spain less satisfactory than its predecessors—that will depend on your taste.
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Writer: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Release Date: August 11, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.