THE TRIP TO SPAIN (Directed by Michael Winterbottom, 108 minutes, UK 2017)
BY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY FILM CRITIC There are lots of movies about journeys and adventures, from The Great Race to Eurotrip, but not many of them capture the banalities of a road-trip quite as well as The Trip series. Originally a series on the BBC, the trilogy — The Trip, The Trip to Italy and now The Trip To Spain — have all been made into feature length movies and released abroad. Each presents a similar story of two friendly rivals, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing heightened versions of themselves, travelling together, eating food, and doing impressions of more-famous actors. Unlike other movies depicting journeys, the act of travelling is hardly the concern. The destination is certainly not a consideration either, as each town is its own destination, rather than steps that lead to a culmination. What The Trip movies have always been interested in is the realities of travelling: the hours spent talking in the car, the meals shared along the road, the difficulty of budgeting time, the grandeur of the scenery, and the subtle tension between two similar people forced to spend too long in each other’s company.
The acting in these movies is very subtly brilliant. So subtle, in fact, it can be hard to believe that these men are not playing their real selves. Is Steve Coogan really a fame-hungry know-it-all with pretensions of grandeur and a fragile ego? Is Rob Brydon really a long-suffering actor who feels eclipsed by the fame of his acquaintance, but has come to accept his lot in life? Probably not, but we can’t know. We only perceive these men through the camera. We know the parts of them that they allow us to see, and beyond that, or maybe looking at their Wikipedia pages, we can only guess. I guess that if these two men disliked each other as much as their characters do, it would take a fairly strong incentive to get them into the Range Rover time and again.
The Trip To Spain is not a screwball comedy, or an absurd comedy. One might call it an awkward comedy, but even that is too strong. This is a real-life comedy, where two people sit, talk, and throw back and forth ideas and impressions just to make each other laugh. Neither truly plays the straight man, and that’s a part of the genius at work. Because both Coogan and Brydon occupy the same role, each seeks to out-do the other. Both characters need to have the more accurate impression, the more cutting comment. Alone they can let their egos down, but when their party is joined by a young busker, or by two women co-workers, the sly competition becomes even more fierce, and the jokes become more heated.
The ostensible purpose of the movie is to have the two review food, and, truly, the food looks incredible, but they don’t spend much time discussing the food as true gourmands would. Instead, they tell stories and make up scenes. At one point in one of the later meals, they move into a James Bond skit, with each trying to offer the other the ‘poisoned’ scallop. The food is only a cover to watch these two men have a good time, and vicariously have a good time ourselves.
There is also an interesting thematic concern working through the film of Spanish history and literature. They discuss Cervantes, even dressing up like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for a photoshoot. The castles they move through brings up questions of the Spanish Civil War, and of the Inquisition. While these are sometimes cause for jokes, they also reveal deeper parts of the characters. Discussing George Orwell’s stint with the Republican Army, Brydon wonders what his wife’s reaction would be to seeing him go off to fight. Discussing Cervantes’ capture by Moors, Coogan indicates what he would and wouldn’t do if he were in a similar situation, including trading his life to free a child. Like Cervantes’ heroes, these two are getting old, despite proclaiming themselves to be in the prime of their lives. This consideration is seen through their emotions, their reactions to events. And while the movie is funny, it is also sensitive, and that duality is what makes the overall effect so powerful.