Editor’s Note: The Trip to Spain opens in limited theatrical release today, August 18, 2017.
To sequelize or not to sequelize. That’s rarely the question, especially since the answer depends exclusively on return on investment (ROI) and little else. In the case of writer-director Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, a series released in three year increments first as six-part TV series in the UK, but released elsewhere in truncated, feature-length form, two modest successes in a row all but made The Trip to Spain, the third entry in the least likely trilogy of all time (or maybe just recently) inevitable. Moviegoers who venture out this weekend for a bit of counter-programming to catch The Trip to Spain before it leaves movie theaters in a week or two can expect more of the same, the same biting putdowns, the same wounded (white) male pride, the same comically engaging passive-aggressive behavior from two performers, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who’ve never made the A-list, let alone the B-list.
Maybe that’s not completely true. Coogan has probably spent the better part of two decades on the B-list, a recognizable funny man with a near iconic character, Alan Partridge, practically an institution in Coogan’s native England, along with a supporting turn here or there from time to time. He’s even received two Academy Award nominations, the latest for the Judi Dench tearjerker, Philomena. At least Coogan can claim a toehold on the imagination of the fickle American public. Outside of The Trip series, Brydon hasn’t made much of an impact stateside. Even his home in The Trip series, a two-floor, nondescript family home he shares with his (fictional) wife and (fictional) children, falls in line with his modest achievements. We don’t get a glance at Coogan’s stately home this time around. Instead, he’s staying at a posh, if bland-looking, hotel, back from New York for his latest misadventure with Brydon.
There’s little pretense too about their third get together: Brydon has been commissioned by a Brit paper to write up Spain’s lesser known, out-of-the-way restaurants while Coogan hopes to revisit the scenes of his various, youthful crimes (he backpacked across Europe like most middle-to-upper-class kids of his era) and turn his latest experiences into a book. Of course, Coogan does little note-taking or writing during the trip. He’s a talker, but not much of a doer, at least in this particular, fictionalized incarnation. Mortality, always an unspoken companion to Coogan and Brydon on their earlier adventures, makes a return appearance, this time in more visible, tangible form. Coogan and Brydon are past the mid-point of a century, and while they still have their relative health, they’re keenly aware that they have more past than future. Multiple scenes of Coogan and Brydon jogging through this or that picturesque Spanish town underlines their increasingly desperate attempt to hold onto their relatively youthful appearances.
In stark contrast, Brydon has fully embraced fatherhood and blissful domesticity: His wife and children do, in fact, complete him. The vain, egotistical, self-involved Coogan hasn’t fared as well. He’s divorced, in love with a married woman, Mischa (Margo Stilley), an American almost half his age, with a 20-year-old son he barely sees. He hopes to change the physical and emotional distance that separates him from his son, but like most of Coogan’s carefully laid out plans, it goes awry. So does Coogan’s ill-conceived relationship with Mischa, but that’s par for the proverbial course where Coogan is concerned: He may not be his own worst enemy, but he’s a close second or third. He’s also still grasping for the recognition, respect, and admiration of the filmmaking community, refusing to accept that his age makes him a liability. He falls into a surface-deep pool of despair when he learns the studio has hired another, younger writer to “polish” his latest script. Raging against the dying of the light isn’t a choice for Coogan. Ultimately, it’s part and parcel of his personality. And when Winterbottom leaves Brydon back at home, reunited with his wife and children, a man content with the life he’s created for himself, he leaves Coogan in a far more precarious, even absurdist place, facing his worst nightmares, a man alone, a dry, empty road, and a future that looks bleaker by the moment. When a passing truck offers not salvation, but the opposite, it’s a surprisingly apt end for The Trip to Spain even as it seemingly closes the possibility of a fourth or fifth entry.
Never say never, of course, especially when moviegoers and TV watchers have grown to embrace Coogan and Brydon’s antics, their constant jockeying for social position, their inability to resist impersonating celebrities far more famous and admired than they ever will be. In a telling anecdote, Brydon describes listening to the late David Bowie on a radio show. Bowie apparently singled out Brydon as a comic actor he admired, but couldn’t name him. For Brydon, the proximity to an universally beloved pop-culture icon fills him with happiness. For Coogan, it reconfirms Brydon’s middling pop-culture status and reaffirms Coogan’s place in the pop-culture firmament above Brydon. It also serves as a reminder, however, that for all of Coogan’s commercial and critical success, he’ll never have the impact or longevity of someone with Bowie’s supernova-level status.
Moviegoers who venture out this weekend for a bit of counter-programming to catch The Trip to Spain before it leaves movie theaters in a week or two can expect more of the same, the same biting putdowns, the same wounded (white) male pride, the same comically engaging passive-aggressive behavior from two performers, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who’ve never made the A-list, let alone the B-list.