August 4, 2017

Film & Television

A new location, familiar terrain

By Anwen Crawford
Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan bring their signature banter – and talk of mortality – on ‘The Trip to Spain’

Comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan are not quite friends, but nor are they enemies. They are definitely rivals. In The Trip to Spain and its preceding instalments, The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip (2010), they have spent their time one-upping each other with celebrity impressions while eating at expensive restaurants in scenic locations. Coogan’s version of Mick Jagger in The Trip to Spain is boisterous enough to knock cutlery from the tray of a passing waiter, while Brydon has triumphed in all three films, with no small pain on Coogan’s part, at impersonating Roger Moore. Each man also plays an amplified version of himself: Brydon is Brydonesque, superficially amiable but ready to strike, and Coogan is Cooganish, mashing arrogance and wild insecurity.

Each film, abridged by director Michael Winterbottom from three separate six-episode television series, starts with either Coogan or Brydon commissioned by a newspaper to write a series of restaurant reviews, usually as a promotional tie-in for another (fictional) film. It’s a premise so flimsy, so hopelessly self-indulgent, that in a rational world the first instalment would have hardly limped to a close. We could have scorned these middle-aged, middle-ranking, irritatingly middle-class entertainers and been on our way. But irrationality, disdain, self-pity and fear – the fear of insignificance, ageing and death – are also a part of the mix, and the films leave a taste of piquant comedy flecked with sorrow. “We should enjoy this moment,” says Coogan to Brydon in The Trip to Spain, as they discuss turning 50. “We’re in the sweet spot.” Sweet and fast dissolving.

The Trip to Spain finds Brydon, as before, a married family man, now with two young children. In The Trip to Italy he indulged in a fling with a younger woman, a subplot that isn’t referred to here, but the hint of dissatisfaction remains. Coogan continues an intermittent, long-distance romance with American girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley), and has a nearly adult son, Joe (Timothy Leach), from a previous marriage. Both Mischa and Joe, in this film, end up in situations that give Coogan moments of real distress, though their respective circumstances match a little too neatly. And much is mined here, particularly by Brydon, from Coogan’s apparently stalled career: the (real) drama Philomena (2013) won him a (real) Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, but his new script is being redrafted by a younger, hotter writer.

Half the charm and most of the kick come from Brydon and Coogan’s willingness to let themselves be humiliated. Their banter is tangy and mostly improvised. Brydon’s signature comedy routine, a shrunken voice that he calls Small Man Trapped in a Box, is described by Coogan as “the apotheosis of your career”. Brydon gains the upper hand when Coogan confesses his long-held ambition to play Hamlet. “Olivier played him at 42,” Coogan offers. “Olivier was a better actor than you,” returns Brydon.

Occasionally their competitiveness yields to genuine amusement in one another, and there are a few scenes in The Trip to Spain when Coogan can’t help but laugh aloud at Brydon’s antics. Delight lends Coogan’s face a boyish aspect, and these moments of radiance cast the film’s lingering shadows into sharper definition. Winterbottom is a prolific director whose films include literary adaptions, westerns and sci-fi, but his major subject is time: how we possess and lose it, defy and deny it. The real-life ageing process built into this multi-part project suits his purposes very well.

As with its predecessors, The Trip to Spain relies heavily on literary references related to landscape, which are traded by the two leads like hands in a card game. In The Trip, set in England’s north, it was the Lake poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. The Trip to Italy had them discussing the Romantics Byron and Shelley, and here they delve, inevitably, into the Spanish novelist Cervantes and his two most enduring characters. Coogan is identified with the idealistic but somewhat inept knight, Don Quixote, while Brydon fulfils the part of Sancho Panza, earthy sidekick. They even dress the part for a photo shoot, a minor recurring plot point in the trilogy.

But in the end – and perhaps inevitably – the rambling, intertextual, picaresque work of Cervantes leads the film astray. After parting ways with Brydon at the end of their restaurant tour, Coogan is still restless for adventure. The knight-errant ends up stranded, and here the script overreaches, introducing a real-world conflict reminiscent of one of Winterbottom’s harder-hitting docudramas, such as The Road to Guantánamo (2006). The final scene somewhat overpowers the film’s other flavours, which is a shame, because as a whole it’s worth savouring.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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