As a sort of litmus test, noted film critic Gene Siskel would ask of a film, “Is it more interesting than a documentary of the actors having lunch?” Michael Winterbottom’s trilogy of “The Trip” films effectively turn the question inside out, rendering the act of watching a pair of actors having lunch as something riotous, a touch melancholic, and yes, infinitely interesting. Limey comic virtuosos Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have hit the road yet again, bringing their egos, insecurities, and fully loaded arsenals of celebrity impressions with them. And enough has changed since they ate their way through Italy — “Philomena” landed Coogan a pair of Oscar nominations, and he won’t let anyone forget it — that this dish remains just as sumptuous in the third tuck-in, “The Trip To Spain.”
There’s a certain skill in recognizing when something that ain’t broke don’t need fixing. Winterbottom’s hit upon a winning formula with seemingly limitless potential for regular renewal; he keeps the cameras rolling while Coogan and Brydon volley witticisms like a schticky McEnroe and Borg, their barrage of bits interspersed with ravishing footage of the Spanish countryside and obscene tapas porn. Winterbottom’s film offers a neurotic and often bitterly sarcastic spin on the same material pleasures of a Nancy Meyers production, shamelessly luxuriating in its own luxury. The paella is exquisite, each Roger Moore-voice contest equally so.
Brydon and Coogan are the same gifted improvisers they’ve always been, shooting the breeze until it sweeps them into some absurd playacted scenario. A Spanish Inquisition stretching-rack torture session slowly melts into a peppy game show in one standout scene; in another, an odd-looking mystery dish triggers a full-blown recitation of the classic “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die” sequence. Both men bring a vital willingness to self-efface to these fictionalized versions of themselves, too, pettily one-upping one another with factoids as a piteous show of manhood. They can be vain, self-serving nobs, but the abiding affection they have for one another provides a nice base to balance out their natural acidity.
Some faint notes of middle-age glumness add a welcome sense of gravity to the easygoing levity. Coogan’s cracked 50, at that odd age where he’s too old to play Hamlet and too young for Lear. Without a woman, abandoned by his agent, and far from his son, he wrestles with an adrift sort of loneliness in the private moments that punctuate the film. He’s grasping at something by inviting Brydon to join him as he prepares to write a book about his teenage years in Spain, in search of someone to hold fast to in an unexpectedly unmoored period of adulthood. This woeful undercurrent makes for an affecting (and positively hilarious) final shot, but moreover, it lends the trifle of a film a stick-to-your-ribs substantiveness.
There are enough parody-ready male British thespians and countries with lavish cuisine to fuel 20 more trips. Brydon and Coogan’s effortless chemistry, paired with the simple joys of good food and world-class sightseeing, make these films a supremely pleasant vacation unto themselves. Someone get these men on the next ferry to Japan. [A-]