By Liam Lacey
The cinematic recipe for The Trip (2010) and The Trip to Italy (2014) was an inspired bit of virtual fantasy - a road trip with two terrific comic improvisers, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, on a scenic journey from one fine restaurant to another.
Throughout, tour-guide/director Michael Winterbottom, would hold the realism together with thinly fictionalized scaffolding.
The Trip to Spain, the third course in the series, offers more of Coogan and Brydon, amusing us and tormenting each other between tasty bites and rugged vistas. This time, however, the preparation feels slapdash. We can still laugh along as the two men scarf down scallops with caviar, amidst competitive impersonations — Mick Jagger, David Bowie and dueling Brandos. But the surprise is missing.
Frankly, even the set-up here is perfunctory: After the opening credits sequence (as Louie Armstrong growls A Foggy Day in London Town), Coogan calls up Brydon to invite him on a brief, all-expenses Iberian trip. Brydon will write restaurant reviews and Coogan will work on a book. Brydon, knee-deep in toddlers, quickly accepts. And, in short order, he’s kissing his wife and kids goodbye and putting his bags in Coogan’s Range Rover.
A ferry ride from Plymouth to Santander lands them in Spain, and the eating and bantering begin. Over anchovies and octopus at a Basque seafood restaurant, the competitive impersonations start: Brydon’s Pacino, Steve Coogan’s twitty Mick Jagger, and (a series trademark) both men’s Michael Caine.
Their itinerary takes them east to Basque Country, near San Sebastian, before they head south, straight through central Spain to Granada and ending in Malaga over a five-day jaunt. There’s no time for the culinary hotspots in Madrid and Catalonia, though we visit some tourist sites. Among them, the birthplace of King Ferdinand, a dinosaur park, the mesmerizing Arab fortress city of Alhambra (which Coogan describes in travel book banalities followed by “blah, blah, blah").
In keeping with the literary allusions Winterbottom used in the previous films (Wordsworth and Coleridge in The Trip; Byron and Shelley in The Trip to Italy) the reference-point here is Cervantes, with Coogan as the mad knight, Don Quixote, and Brydon as the down-to-earth peasant, Sancho Panza.
Between the meals and impersonations, Coogan and Brydon cheer each other up about getting older, agreeing middle-age is life’s “sweet spot” between youth and senescence. While Brydon’s character has adjusted to domesticity since the last filming, the insecure Coogan, who has given up alcohol and jogs each morning through the ancient streets, endures his usual identity crisis. There’s a married girlfriend in New York, a new agent, a script that is being rewritten by an “up and coming” writer and the declining currency of his double Oscar nomination as writer-producer for the 2013 film, Philomena.
Also, he’s having bad dreams, which, possibly, might include the misjudged final scene in the film, when Coogan finds himself stranded on a Moroccan roadside.
But all of this feels like an attempt at unconvincing seriousness, a happy meal with a glum dessert.
And frankly, it amounts to a refusal to settle for the real pleasures of The Trip series, which are essentially an update on Crosby and Hope road movies, with better food and real locations.
The Trip to Spain. Directed by Michael WInterbottom. Starring: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The Trip to Spain shows at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather