Firmly cementing its series’ status as the “Before” movies of male friendship, “The Trip to Spain” may seem like nothing more than a third taste of a favorite dish, but the best meals in life are worth eating thrice, and this one has been simmered in some tangy new spices and aged to perfection.
Once again, British comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan eat their way through a week-long drive through some repugnantly gorgeous European countryside. Once again, their playful (but gently existential) rivalry is expressed through dueling impressions of the more famous men who came before them; despite an obligatory appearance from Michael Caine(s), this installment belongs to Mick Jagger and Roger Moore. And once again, a bouquet of melancholy notes results in a bittersweet aftertaste that lingers on the tongue, as our two heroes — recast as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza tilting at wind turbines — struggle to reconcile the myths that men write for themselves with the realities that life is actually willing to offer them.
But it’s been seven years since “The Trip” first sparked this accidental triptych, which means that Brydon and Coogan are seven years deeper into the morass of middle age, and seven years closer to being the people they’ll eventually have to become. Both of them have scaled 50 and started to come down the other side, and both of them are horribly insecure in their footing (though Brydon at least has something of a safety line). So while this isn’t necessarily the last of their adventures, it fully embraces the fact that its twin buffoons aren’t getting any younger.
In doing so, director Michael Winterbottom hasn’t just delivered the funniest movie of the year, but also a comedy that casts its characters in a harsh new light. Far from empty calories, “The Trip to Spain” is nearly as bitter and necessary a commentary on its story’s previous chapters as “Before Midnight” was to the first two episodes of Richard Linklater’s trilogy.
As in “The Trip to Italy,” the film’s first joke takes aim at flimsiness of its premise, as Coogan stands alone on his London balcony and fields a perfunctory 10-second phone chat with Brydon. To paraphrase: “We’re going to Spain this time.” “Okay.” Click. The details about which newspaper is paying for their jaunt (and why) have never been so flimsy, but that only makes it funnier. With a screaming baby in his house, Brydon is more than happy to heed the call to adventure. Coogan, lonely as ever, would never admit how much he cherishes the company (the detail that Coogan has yet to meet Brydon’s infant son is a nice touch, as you get the sense that the two men don’t see each other between these “assignments,” and contrive elaborate schemes to spend time with each other, as two men often do). Hardly five minutes pass before they’re on the ferry to the Iberian Peninsula, Coogan naturally claiming the fancier “commodore cabin” for himself.
Coogan, who has always played the more prickly and ego-driven of the pair, has doubled down on his desire to follow in the footsteps of great men. Whereas in “The Trip to Italy” his plan was to retrace a journey once taken by Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, this time he’s retracing a journey once taken by the greatest man of all: himself (age 18). It’s safe to say that there are a lot more “Philomena” jokes this time around, as Coogan won’t stop yammering about his Oscar nominations or the fact that he’s on a first-name basis with Dame Judi Dench.
Of course, the adventure that he and Brydon are really reliving is their own, as “The Trip to Spain” is meant to be an echo of the previous films, one that obeys the food porn formula of the first two. Some might dismiss this excursion as a case of diminishing returns, but the willingness to recycle old jokes with new riffs is part of the point — if these guys could think of new material, they wouldn’t have to be here with each other, engaging in a bloodless Spanish Civil War that’s fought over tapas.
Fortunately, the impressions are still hilarious, even if Winterbottom’s cut-aways dice up the gut-boasting lunch scenes more ruthlessly than ever before (per usual, this “Trip” is truncated from a three-hour version that aired on British television). Not only are Coogan and Brydon both absolute wizards at performing these vocal parlor tricks, but they crucially stay in character even when channeling other people. One telling scene finds Brydon’s Bowie voice melting into a memory about how the late singer once mentioned his work during a radio interview, but couldn’t remember his name. Here, in the so-called “sweet spot of their lives,” these comedians are both grappling with the fact that nobody will ever impersonate them (and if they do, the Man in the Box will get all the credit).
Brydon may be the more level-headed of the two, but his decision to have kids relatively late in life has put his mortality into rather harsh perspective, even if it’s obvious that he’s pretty much the ideal dad. Still, in a trilogy that has always regarded marriage and domesticity as the only reliable defense mechanism against the delusions of celebrity and its swelling effect on the male ego, that Brydon has a wife puts him ahead in the game. It’s Coogan, fresh off the realization that he’s in love with his married ex-girlfriend (Margo Stilley), who really starts to suffer the consequences of his perpetual bachelordom.
After lightly chiding these gents for two movies, Winterbottom finally takes the knives out and begins to punish them, a decision that results in two late scenes that border on sociopathic and culminates in an unimaginably absurd ending that refuses to let Coogan off the hook. Still, after three unique and utterly wonderful movies — the third of which will leave fans hungry for many more — perhaps these lovable clowns can take solace in the delicious irony that, for all of the impersonations, they’ll be most fondly remembered for playing themselves.
“The Trip to Spain” premiered in the Spotlight Narrative section of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. IFC Films will release it on August 11.