One way to enjoy “The Trip to Spain,” the third entry in Michael Winterbottom’s gags-and-gastronomy franchise, would be to periodically mute the sound. That way, the therapeutic calm instilled by the glorious Iberian scenery (photographed by James Clarke in shimmering, almost edible pastels) could be savored uninterrupted by the performative patter of the two stars, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. I imagine that the diners seated near them in the restaurants where much of this movie takes place would have been grateful for mute buttons of their own.
Like “The Trip” in 2011 and “The Trip to Italy” three years later, this latest cushy assignment sends the lads — once again playing Steve and Rob, mildly fictionalized versions of themselves — tootling around a randomly chosen region, sampling menus and trading banter. I hesitate to say jokes, because, unlike the bounce and zing of the first movie, the tone here is more sober and the humor more strained. Barely squeaking by on a familiar formula and flimsy narrative (Steve is writing a book; Rob is scribbling restaurant reviews for The New York Times), the actors convey a sense of going through the motions. Eating sumptuous meals without apparent relish, jogging separately through impossibly gorgeous towns, and firing off celebrity impersonations with wearying one-upmanship, they perform with the competitive reflexivity of the longtime double act.
Yet even artists as gifted as these two can only hitchhike so long on the charisma of household names like Mick Jagger and Michael Caine, and the dueling impressions that fuel the franchise have become effortful and repetitive. (One extended bit on Roger Moore is tortured to the point of desperation.) And though the spaces between the funny voices are filled with verdant hillsides and vanilla beaches that stretch the length of the frame, there’s an occasional sour edge to the comedic sparring.
This comes almost entirely from Steve, whose midlife anxieties — including an elusive, married lover and a neglectful agent — are the burr under the movie’s saddle. Plagued by disturbing dreams and career frustrations, he becomes increasingly distracted and crabby, until every comic utterance feels like a shot across the bow of mortality. This poignancy makes the picture less humorous but potentially more substantive than its predecessors. And as the men imagine themselves Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (daftly abetted by Noel Harrison’s 1960s hit “The Windmills of Your Mind”), the film’s failure to engage with these discomforts feels like a missed opportunity.
Instead, Mr. Winterbottom and his team — by means of an extremely strange ending — appear to be setting us up for a Trip to Morocco. Sorry, guys, but that one’s already been done.
Continue reading the main story