Reuniting for the third time, filmmaker Michael Winterbottom and actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon continue their “Trip” series of a largely improvised travel show which then gets edited into a feature film. (Say what you want about franchise culture, but it has resulted in a Trip trilogy.) It’s a roundabout way of making a movie, but it has worked for the trio since 2010’s The Trip, which introduced to Coogan’s and Brydon’s fictionalized selves and their semi-competitive friendship. The Trip to Spain continues the tradition, with shots of busy kitchens intercut with leisurely dining, waiters explaining impossibly delicious-sounding food, and “Steve” and “Rob” having conversations so loud it’s a wonder no one else in the restaurant ever looks at them. And of course, there are the impressions.
In The Trip “Steve” gets stuck traveling to foodie spots in northern England with “Rob” after his initial plans fall through, and it seems the two can barely stand each other. In The Trip to Italy, they are almost reluctant friends, and now in The Trip to Spain they are just friends, and this is a thing they do. Spain benefits for the mellowed relationship because it allows more room for the compare-and-contrast of their lives to sink in, as they candidly discuss family and career with less competitive edge and more empathy. “Rob” has settled into his belated fatherhood, and not even a tempting Hollywood offer can lure him from his family. “Steve”, meanwhile, is still chasing waterfalls and trying to capitalize on the Oscar momentum of Philomena, for which the real Coogan was nominated for an Oscar.
But there are still plenty of jokes at one another’s expense. “Rob” gets in a number of especially good digs about “Steve” constantly bringing up Philomena, but “Steve” gets in a zinger about The Huntsman: Winter’s War. (At one point “Rob” fields a call from a Hollywood agent who thinks he was the stand-out in Huntsman and ought to be getting more opportunities like that—the fictional agent is right and one wonders if Brydon actually had this conversation.) And there are the impressions—Roger Moore gets a lot of play this time around, as does Christopher Lee and Mick Jagger. (The famous dueling Michael Caine impressions are referenced but no longer the centerpiece.) The MVP is “Rob’s” unrelenting Roger Moore impression while “Steve” is trying to have a real conversation.
The actual story, though, is the most poignant it’s ever been. “Rob” is the parent of young children and worried about keeping up as they grow and he ages, and “Steve” is, despite his recent success, keenly aware that there is always someone younger and hungrier just behind him. Though the film doesn’t judge between the two men’s paths, “Steve’s” shark-like existence makes “Rob’s” choice to be happy with his UK telly success seem not only reasonable but actively BETTER. “Steve” has a nasty edge that “Rob” lacks entirely, and while “Steve” continues to scramble up the Hollywood ladder, “Rob” plays with his children, content in a way “Steve” cannot experience. The Trip has never wanted to condemn either man’s choices, but at this third stage it’s hard not to think “Steve’s” priorities are a little screwed up.
The Trip to Spain sort of reminds me of Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later. Both are the third reunion of actors performing endearing roles, and both manage to tell new stories in an established world, and touching on in-jokes and references while still adding to the repertoire. But both also have a creeping feeling of diminished returns, that what made their respective first films so great is beginning to get stale. Spain takes a hard turn into left field in the third act, and the movie gets a little loopy and too broad right at the end. But though it’s beginning to feel like we, like any weary traveler, need a break from “Rob” and “Steve”, there is still a lot of fun in “Rob” and “Steve” doing their rival impressions, and tearing strips off one another while eating amazing meals. The Trip to Spain is more of the same, but that’s not so bad when “the same” is the film equivalent of a Michelin-starred meal.