‘The Trip to Spain’

Steve Coogan, Rob Bry­don eat, quip their way across Spain in this aim­less ‘Trip.’

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - JUSTIN CHANG FILM CRITIC justin.chang@la­times.com

Steve Coogan and Rob Bry­don team for an­other im­pro­vised jaunt.

The para­dox of “The Trip” movies is that they are al­ways hold­ing out the prom­ise of new ex­pe­ri­ences — new cities to ex­plore, new dishes to sa­vor, new his­toric and lit­er­ary land­marks to ref lect upon — even as they ad­here to a pat­tern of rep­e­ti­tion and re­as­sur­ance that is pretty much the op­po­site of nov­elty. Whether this is part of these movies’ ir­re­sistible charm or ev­i­dence of their lim­i­ta­tions is en­tirely up to you and prob­a­bly be­side the point in any case.

It would be a plea­sure to re­port that “The Trip to Spain,” the third fea­ture adapted from the Michael Win­ter­bot­tom-di­rected sit­com, amounted to more than just an­other heav­ily im­pro­vised jaunt through some pic­turesque Euro­pean coun­try­side in the wit­tily self-ag­gran­diz­ing com­pany of Steve Coogan and Rob Bry­don, gamely play­ing fic­tion­al­ized ver­sions of them­selves. But it would also be a be­trayal — of not only the au­di­ence’s ex­pec­ta­tions but also the spirit of these some­times en­chant­ing, in­vari­ably ir­ri­tat­ing pro­ceed­ings.

You might well ar­gue that this lat­est fea­ture-length ad­ven­ture is the least sat­is­fy­ing of the three, a sun-dap­pled test case for the law of di­min­ish­ing re­turns, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But in­so­far as these ad­ven­tures have al­ways swirled around the sub­ject of dis­ap­point­ment — a never-dis­tant sense of anx­i­ety and fail­ure that no amount of high epi­curean liv­ing can ul­ti­mately over­come — you might just as well say that the movie rep­re­sents the fullest ex­pres­sion of the se­ries’ ethos.

Af­ter tour­ing Eng­land’s Lake District in “The Trip” (2010) and driv­ing along the Amalfi Coast in “The Trip to Italy” (2014), Coogan and Bry­don now hop a ferry to Spain, dock­ing at San­tander and then head­ing south through the Basque Coun­try en route to Málaga. Bry­don is once again fil­ing restau­rant re­views for the Ob­server, though this time the New York Times is in the as­sign­ment mix as well. Re­gard­less, any writ­ing they do is mere pre­text for sev­eral days’ worth of haute cui­sine, gor­geous scenery and pala­tial digs, padded out with du­el­ing celebrity im­pres­sions, pas­sive-ag­gres­sive jabs, sur­prise dream se­quences and lots of down­time spent ag­o­niz­ing over their lat­est fam­ily dramas and ca­reer de­vel­op­ments.

Even over plates of suc­cu­lent-look­ing shrimp and Ibe­rian chorizo, it takes Bry­don barely 10 min­utes to trot out his Michael Caine — a re­li­ably funny bit that, while pretty hard to beat, is ca­pa­bly matched by Coogan’s lofty chan­nel­ing of Ian McKellen and, most un­ex­pect­edly, a hi­lar­i­ous, pouty-lipped riff on Mick Jag­ger. (The vo­cal stylings of Robert De Niro, Mar­lon Brando and Rus­sell Brand all make ap­pear­ances as well.) And as al­ways, the one-up­s­man­ship in­her­ent in all this rapid-fire mimicry al­lows the two men a play­ful out­let for their deeper, largely un­spo­ken tensions.

Coogan may be the bet­ter-known star, es­pe­cially with a pair of Oscar nom­i­na­tions un­der his belt for pro­duc­ing and writ­ing “Philom­ena” (an ac­com­plish­ment that, as Bry­don points out, he never tires of bring­ing up). But Coogan, now in his 50s, is do­ing more writ­ing than act­ing these days; his agent has aban­doned him, and he’s in­fu­ri­ated that his lat­est pas­sion-project screen­play has been as­signed to an “up-and-com­ing” writer for a pol­ish.

While Coogan ex­pe­ri­ences these set­backs, Bry­don gets wind of a fresh op­por­tu­nity, though he knows bet­ter than to flaunt or pur­sue it openly. He is, af­ter all, the lowly San­cho Panza to Coogan’s puffed-up Don Quixote, to ref­er­ence the Span­ish lit­er­ary touch­stone whose spirit gov­erns this rather less event­ful pi­caresque. Like its pre­de­ces­sors, “The Trip to Spain” lets its char­ac­ters bicker, but it al­ways pulls them back from the brink of an ac­tual flare-up. It’s never the last straw be­tween these two.

At times you wish it were. The most painful scene in­volves an aim­less, non­sen­si­cal riff whose mea­ger comic value will be de­pleted only fur­ther by my at­tempt to de­scribe it. Some­where in the me­dieval town of Sos del Rey Católico, Coogan is show­ing off his knowl­edge of the Span­ish Civil War, specif­i­cally the in­volve­ment of Moor­ish troops, only to keep get­ting in­ter­rupted by Bry­don’s ex­tended im­pres­sion of Roger Moore. So you get a weak pun, a sec­ond-rate celebrity sendup and a lot of know-it-all wind­bag­gery in one se­quence — every­thing ex­cept the mo­ment when some­body, prefer­ably Coogan’s col­league Emma (Claire Kee­lan) tells them both to shut it, or at least does some­thing be­sides sit around sup­ply­ing ami­able re­ac­tion shots.

The sav­ing grace of “The Trip” movies is that all along they have dis­played an es­sen­tial mea­sure of self­aware­ness, a barbed un­der­stand­ing of their char­ac­ters’ priv­i­leged nar­cis­sism. The vi­car­i­ous en­joy­ment of Europe’s visual and culi­nary splen­dors re­quires no de­fense, but the re­lent­less fo­cus on two des­per­ately self-preen­ing male egos is an­other mat­ter (and here I am re­fer­ring to the char­ac­ters rather than the ac­tors, who clearly en­joy let­ting us guess at what’s real and what isn’t).

A cer­tain ex­haus­tion sets in well be­fore the end, col­laps­ing any mean­ing­ful dis­tinc­tion be­tween cam­er­a­hog­ging self-in­dul­gence and crit­i­cal scru­tiny. It would be one thing if Coogan and Bry­don’s ban­ter masked or at least hinted at a deeper emo­tional core, as it did in the best mo­ments of the ear­lier movies. But for long stretches here, they’re sim­ply coast­ing, talk­ing non­stop but never com­mu­ni­cat­ing; you may find your­self iden­ti­fy­ing with the restau­rant pa­trons, who as al­ways prove al­most will­fully in­dif­fer­ent to the rude and noisy celebri­ties in their midst.

“Like a door that keeps re­volv­ing / in a half-for­got­ten dream” goes the Noel Har­ri­son “Wind­mills of Your Mind” cover that plays through­out, in­spired by the mills and wind farms dot­ting the Castilla-La Man­cha scenery. And like the shock­ingly taste­less non se­quitur that pops up in the fi­nal scene, those lyrics more or less sum up the shrug of fu­til­ity at the heart of “The Trip to Spain,” as two pop­u­lar artists re­sign them­selves to the knowl­edge that life’s fun­da­men­tal empti­ness be­comes only more pro­nounced with age. It’s hard to fault the hon­esty of that sen­ti­ment but even harder to for­give the lazi­ness that brought them to it.

Phill Fisk IFC Films

ROB BRY­DON, right, plays San­cho Panza to Steve Coogan’s Don Quixote in the Cer­vantes-fu­eled “Spain.”

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