The nice thing about the third film of a trilogy is you can pretty safely assume everyone knows what the score is, so there’s no need to waste time with introductions and other formalities. In the first scene of Michal Winterbottom’s The Trip to Spain, Steve Coogan calls Rob Brydon and invites him to go on a one-week eating and sight-seeing jaunt through Spain, much like their odysseys through England in The Trip and Italy in The Trip to Italy. “I’m asking you to come with me,” Coogan says. Brydon looks at his baby, who screams at him. Immediately, Bryond replies, “Yes.” And they’re off.
There’s not much plot, per se, in The Trip to Spain, but there seldom is; these are hang-out movies, and it is, as ever, a delight to eavesdrop on these two very funny, very British actor/comedians. Which is not to say there aren’t themes to contemplate; as ever, career anxieties reign supreme, and even as their profiles ascend, insecurity is insurmountable. Mr. Coogan, as he mentions a time or two, is now an Oscar-nominated screenwriter – but that doesn’t prevent his new script from being farmed out for “just a polish” by a new, “up and coming” screenwriter, to which Coogan snorts, “Up and coming? I’ve up and come!”
And, this time, there are questions of aging. They’re now on the far side of 50, and will assure each other that they’re better than ever (they’re “ripe,” Coogan insists), but they sure do exercise a lot, and worry about their health and waistlines (“I hold it in pretty much all the time now,” Brydon confesses, which falls squarely into the realm of “too real”).
But the filmmakers – director Winterbottom and stars Coogan and Brydon, who improvise most of their dialogue – also know the main thing we’re there for: competing impressions of celebrities. This time, the pair trot out dueling takes on Mick Jagger, Roger Moore, John Hurt, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, Ian McKellan, Anthony Hopkins, and, of course, Michael Caine (this one comes late in the film and is teed up beautifully – they know this is their “Freebird,” the big hit we’re waiting for them to play).
Those bits are rooted in the witty give-and-take that permeates the picture; its setting leads to a recurring Don Quixote theme, but the pair are less like hero and sidekick than bickering siblings. There’s love and respect between them, but they’re also very good at pushing each other’s buttons. There is competitiveness and condescension, humiliation and ribbing (“And we welcome Philomena back into the conversation, it’s been a good five or six minutes…”). But that’s all bravado; they’re genuinely amused by each other, and the warmest (and often funniest) moments are when they legitimately make each other laugh, which seems more prevalent in this film than its predecessors. Much like the Before trilogy, we’re not just watching the continuation of a story, but the evolution of a relationship.
The Trip to Spain has its stumbles; the score lays it on way too thick, and there’s too much epilogue (once the pair splits, the movie should end as soon as possible – it’s a duet, period). And though they bid farewell with Coogan promising, “I’ll see you in… another country,” there are enough moments of borderline-repetitive familiarity to indicate this is not an indestructible formula – it could wear itself out, eventually. But it certainly hasn’t yet.
“The Trip to Spain” screens this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It opens theatrically on August 11.