By Elias Savada.
Always light-hearted and entertaining, the deadpan road films featuring the improvisation talents of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have christened their third voyage, The Trip to Spain, after the duo had previously traipsed through Northern England and Italy. This casual excursion, like previous ones, offers up a multitude of actor impressions sprinkled among salivating local cuisine and scenic countrywide venues. Director Michael Winterbottom returns to prevent these clowns from falling off the side of the road, although one of the main characters seems adrift, and the film amiss, as the outing ends.
The comic travelogue series began in 2011 with The Trip, which like its sequel The Trip to Italy (2014) and the current Iberian iteration, were six-episode runs on the BBC. Each semi-fictionalized six-pack was cobbled into a feature-length outings for worldwide consumption. Lightly constructed (no writer is actually credited on screen), the comedy is forced throughout the entire film, starting with an opening phone call from Coogan to Brydon, where the former needs to tell the other his full name for recognition. With an infant wailing on the floor beside him, it doesn’t take much motivation for Brydon to agree to be a tag-along on his buddy’s latest jaunt. Off in a Range Rover they go.
Most of the humor falls flat, but a few snippets offer up small guffaws and tiny chuckles. For instance, as the boys-men construct a short tale about the Mayflower sailing for America. “What part?” one asks.
And that is the typical humor you’ll find in abundance here.
Improvisations of Roger Moore, Mick Jagger (performing Shakespeare), Michael Caine, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Woody Allen, Ian McKellan, Sean Connery, and others make brief vocal intonations as the banter often turns to silly meanderings about life, love, career, and family, with sideward glances at local chefs preparing mouth-watering treats.
Taken in tapas-size morsels, the original television episodes are probably fine samplings of cuisine and comedy, but when you push them all together into a 108-minute feature, the droll gluttony begins to set in. Sure, there are glimpses of fun, especially when Coogan emits a monotone vibration while Brydon pretends that his hearing aid batteries are on the fritz (note from us older folks: you never lose both batteries at once), and then Brydon launches (too briefly) into his weird back-of-his-throat “small man in a box” voice manipulation bit. That routine deserves an extra helping.
The cursory attention to the luscious looking food will turn off foodies tuning in during various spy v. spy sketches, tentative Nazi jokes, overabundant references to Philomena Lee (showcased in the 2013 film Philomena and featuring Coogan), or torturous game show commentaries on the Spanish Inquisition.
Beautiful landscapes, dusty backroads, an impressive, breathtaking coastal views, restored Moorish castles (including one where the bloated 1992 turkey Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, where Brando was filmed), are interspersed with quaint views as Rob and Steve walk the streets and alleys of several lovely Spanish towns. Heck, there are even cameos from a few dinosaurs.
Peppers, prawns, pork chops, and peaches are but some of the more appetizing ingredients that form the culinary delights on the menu, but you can only wallow in the thought of fine food for so long until you want to stop watching and head out to catch a good meal.
The film occasionally breaks away into a costumed “recreation,” including both men appearing in the Brando fiasco, in which he portrayed Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada. These side trips are actually offshoots curried up in Coogan’s nighttime reveries. I doubt they’re from bad food, so perhaps the low-brow comedy is the culprit.
Other sidebars are some semi-frantic phone calls by Coogan with his new “junior” agent – his previous one apparently left him high and dry without notice. He’s happy but pissed that script he has been pushing was picked up by an unnamed studio, but management there wants to bring in an up-and-coming screenwriting to polish up the project. Two other lightly dramatic subplots arrive late in the movie, both dealing with unwanted pregnancies. Such gravitas feels tired.
As a pseudo-documentary, The Trip to Spain tosses out bits of history and then spins them in tangential directions as Rob supposedly writes restaurant/food reviews (you never do seem him jotting anything down, or actually describing the details of the beautiful delights alighting on his plate) and Steve proclaims he’s penning a book about his week traveling the Spanish byways and highways.
These Trips are starting to feel a little threadbare (another one, down the road, is planned for Ireland), and the shtick is oddly more fleeting this go round. Maybe you’ll giggle when Roger Moore impressions battle one another and suggest the late actor had a brother named Less. If you find yourself laughing (or even amused) after the following remark delivered by Coogan – but borrowed from a linguistics example of syntactic ambiguity (and oft attributed to Groucho Marx) – then this film might be for you. Sadly, for me, it’s indicative of the strained comic abyss into which this Trip series is now slipping: “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.”
As Coogan and Brydon elevate their shenanigans, I noticed that other patrons in the restaurants they visit don’t even notice their near-shouting. At least they’re not complaining to management. They aren’t laughing either.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).