Once more, into the brie — or, in this case, the Manchego. For the third time, now, for Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, it’s the feast as improv proving ground, the sumptuous meal as arena of competitive discernment: Who can better parse and parody the particularities of some beloved British film actor? And, most crucially, Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Spain is a breezy study of aging men afraid they’ve lost their potency, their command of life, their once-certain enshrinement in the culture. It is at once a desperate echo of long-gone glories and a glory itself.
As Coogan and Brydon, again playing fictionalized riffs of themselves, chow up and down Spain’s Mediterranean Coast, striving to find new crowd-pleasing bits to perform over lunch, the film continually reminds us that these men haven’t quite become all that they expected to. They pant and puff on an uphill bike ride; Coogan takes phone calls from his new American agent, who thinks of him as an afterthought; they sing from Man of La Mancha with what seems to be personal understanding of Don Quixote’s failure to achieve heroic greatness. Sometimes they evince awareness that such heroism is an impossible dream, for anyone, but they still look a little glum about having persisted into their 50s without becoming whatever one thing more it is that wealthy film and TV stars (and writers) aspire to.
They bite into delicacies, just as they always have, and seem to wonder, “Is this all there is?” And audiences either laugh along or scream “Isn’t it enough, you yutzes?” or, in my case, both.
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Like its predecessors, this culinary/comedy travelogue has been cut into a film from an episodic TV series. This elegiac third entry into the series finds our heroes adrift in life, only certain of who they are and why they matter when engaged in the schtick of a Trip movie. They’re a pair of aging white dudes trying to make sense of a world where they’re not necessarily the center of everything; the irony, of course, is that they are in the fluke hits of The Trips. Their trouble is that Hollywood believes that people want to see them joke over meals rather than do the things men do in big movies: hook up with younger women and kick the asses of supervillains. (Younger women, of course, are a thread in these films.)
So they pick at each other’s vanities, Coogan playing the role here of both Quixote and The Slightly More Important Star, needling Brydon for not being quite as famous. One quite funny scene here finds the men discussing, with some shock, the fact that David Bowie knew who they were. And what a relief it is when they hit upon the idea of impersonating Roger Moore, that courtly ham of a Bond who I hope got to enjoy this ribbing before his death in May. As with the duo’s competing impressions of Michael Caine, their Moores reveal a lifetime of attentive, affectionate study — and also something of their own yearning. Wouldn’t they love to have been viewed by the world as men of such smooth self-possession, to be so well known that less-famous celebrities roast them?
Instead, they’re best known for touring the world’s great restaurants, sleeping in rustic hotels, volleying quips between sips of wine. They pick at each other in a most sumptuous sort of Purgatory. This latest Trip seems crafted and performed with an overriding awareness of the laws of sequels and diminishing returns. Of course, it can’t ever be as fresh and funny as the original film, though it does manage often to be — as their Caine might say — quite funny indeed. Then, when it’s not as funny, when the men seem adrift or reduced to calling each other “dinosaur,” The Trip to Spain proves surprisingly rich: Despite their paydays, and the pleasure of their repasts, the versions of themselves that they’re playing seem to believe that doing a third one of these films is in its way a defeat. (The film even builds to a note of despair and one last botch of a joke that doesn’t quite work, and is certain to weigh heavily over the meal you have afterward.)
There are a million troubles worth worrying over on this planet before we get to whether movie stars are satisfied in their wildly successful franchises. It’s worth remembering: Ginger Rogers felt, for many reasons, that she should break free of musicals in order to focus on serious drama. She earned that Kitty Foyle Oscar, of course, but what film fan alive today doesn't wish she had paired up with Fred Astaire for just one more RKO musical?