The Trip to Spain is the third film in Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s culinary travelogues and, from the tone of it, probably the last as well. While it resembles the first two films in many ways, there are also a whole lot of smaller departures here as well that, taken cumulatively, add up to a film that feels very different in ambience and atmosphere, especially in its closing scenes. First and foremost, The Trip to Spain is suffused with a much stronger sense of morbidity, mortality and finitude than either of the first two films, which is perhaps not surprising given that it’s the final film in the trilogy, and that both characters have often expressed anxieties over aging during the course of their wining and dining. On the cusp of their 50s, however, that anxiety is suddenly much more pointed, with both of them reaching for James Bond impersonations more rapidly than ever before, as if to rediscover a new virility in their greyer years, observing more than once that they’re now too old to ever play Hamlet. Along the way, the film is suffused with reminiscences on the number of artists, musicians and cultural icons who passed away in 2016, with the result that The Trip to Spain also captures the peculiar sense of morbidity that characterised 2016 more than any other film I’ve seen since. At the same time, there’s much more of a focus on the outdoors, and upon the weather, than in either The Trip or The Trip to Italy – or at least more of a sense of the outdoors and the weather as something oppressive and inexorable, with much of the activity taking place in a region of Spain renowned for its fossils and prehistoric significance, shot through with ruminations on the vastness of geological time.
Lest that make The Trip to Spain sound too morbid to be a comedy, however, this is also the most quixotic film of the three, not simply because Coogan and Brydon are literally following in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s footsteps – as well as the footsteps of Terry Gilliam’s equally ill-fated Man of La Mancha – but because the looming vagaries of age perpetually makes them seem comically minor against the grand ambition with which they regard their lives, and the seriousness with which they regard their hopes and aspirations. That’s not to say that The Trip to Spain is funnier than the other two films, but that it blends comedy and melancholy more seamlessly than ever before, and comes much closer than The Trip to Italy to the bittersweet crepuscular phone calls that Coogan made periodically to his wife and son in the later stages of The Trip. Here, as there, it feels as if both men are yearning to be at home, but have also somehow decided to stay away, creating a sense of displaced selfhood, and a longing for something that can never be entirely fulfilled in either their personal or professional lives. The difference, this time around, is that this longing morphs into frustration just a little bit more quickly, which is perhaps why their relationship is just a little bit more fractured as well – harsher and more savage – with less pretence of being real friends (one of the new “bits” that Brydon debuts involves him pretending to be tortured by Coogan while he performs a new act, in a macabre version of his “Small Man in a Box” skit). Yet it also has to be said that this more frustrated atmosphere makes the moments of friendship more unexpected and charming, and makes The Trip to Spain often feel – if only momentarily – about two acquaintances rediscovering an unlikely friendship.
Friendship or no friendship, however, Coogan and Brydon have clearly become more comfortable riffing off each other with every film, to the point where much of the theatrics around their impersonations has drifted away. In their place, they simply slip in and out of different voices, and fuse speaking with eating more seamlessly than ever before, with one of their best collaborative efforts turning on them trying to envision how James Bond would eat an oyster, and how this would differ depending upon whether Roger Moore or Sean Connery was playing him. No doubt, we’ve heard many – or most – of these voices already, but they’re embedded in conversation in a new way here, delivered with a casual and offhand panache that makes it clear that Coogan and Brydon are not especially invested in impressing each other any more, and instead just content to luxuriate in their impersonations for their own sake, in their own particular version of placid middle-aged coupledom. When they do consciously and deliberately impersonate celebrities, they now opt for figures like Mick Jagger, John Hurt and Quentin Crisp, who require them to distort their facial features and inject a new level of caricature into their impersonations in order to properly capture them. Alternatively, they opt for figures who were already protean, shape-shifting self-impersonators, culminating with a terrific scene in which they cycle through several of Bowie’s different voices, in a poignantly comic act of love, fandom and homage.
That prescience for the protean quality of even the most recognisable of celebrity voices has always been a key part of this franchise, and it’s partly what ensures that even the old favourites – Al Pacino and Michael Caine – don’t feel stale the third time around, since even now Coogan and Brydon are capable of imagining them from a new angle, or adding another one of their roles to their repertoire. For that reason it’s clearer than ever before that the duo’s skill doesn’t simply lie in impersonating celebrities, but in undoing the ostensibly stable voices that function as a point of departure for impersonation in the first place. At its most adventurous, this involves Coogan and Brydon blending different voices into a single rendition – a new innovation this time around – most spectacularly in a scene in which Coogan does a “combination” of Marlon Brando and Woody Allen performing the Spanisn Inquisition scene from Monty Python. It’s that combinatory genius that most distinguishes The Trip to Spain from the previous two (at one point the duo consider how the Rolling Stones might play Hamlet), as we eventually move beyond impersonation and dialogue altogether to ventriloquistic sound effects. In one especially memorable scene, Coogan makes a staticky white noise as he pretends to be doing a “bit”, while Brydon pretends to turn up a defunct hearing aid; in another, Brydon mimics the sound of his heart beating while being queried about his age for an amusement park ride; in yet another, Coogan impersonates Alan Partridge’s last “A-ha!” before pretending to be shot by a sniper.
Yet for all this formal experimentation – or because of it – The Trip to Spain also exudes an exhaustion, and a sense that Coogan and Brydon’s time together has come to its natural end. It feels right, then, when Michael Winterbottom departs from the structure of the previous two films to provide us with an extended epilogue in which we follow the two men as they peel off from each other and return to their individual lives. On the one hand, Brydon goes home to his wife and children with some good news, since in a picaresque inversion he turns out to be the actor who comes away with the movie deal at the end of this particular film. Nevertheless, there’s a certain melancholy for Brydon in coming home too, a melancholy that is mirrored by Coogan, who remains in Spain upon discovering that his son and his girlfriend are pregnant, but also that his own ex-girlfriend is pregnant too. Those revelations dilute the momentum of the trip, which has been periodically punctuated by Brydon’s anxieties about being an older father – by the time his son is old enough to ride at amusement parks, he’ll be too old – but whose pervasive sadness now focuses more on Coogan, whose girlfriend, it turns out, doesn’t even want to get back with him, and whose son remains as remote and distant as he always has over the course of the first two films.
What ensues, then, is an odd twist whereby two fathers suddenly find themselves jettisoned from any reproductive futurity or clear sense of linearity or lineage, confronted with the disorienting strangeness and openness of old age with no paternal responsibilities to contain them (since Brydon, for all intents and purposes, presents himself as a grandfather more than a father to his children). From the very outset, the franchise has been pervaded by a sense of missed communication, and that culminates here, as Coogan dreams of going to Africa to reunite with his girlfriend only to wake up to find that his petrol has run out in the middle of the Spanish desert, and that he now has to proceed on foot. Eventually, he flags down a van of what appear to be university students and hitches a ride, embarking on a new kind of trip. It’s a thoroughly indeterminate and haunting ending for a series so centred around communal and urbane spaces, not least because Coogan and Brydon’s voices are almost entirely evacuated from these final mise-en-scenes, which take place in near-silence, and which mark the longest any of the films go without an impersonation – a gesture that is all the more dramatic after the acceleration, intensification and – in the end – exhaustion of impersonations over the middle part of the film. Finally, Coogan and Brydon seem to be speaking as themselves, and they feel oddly, tremulously naked for it, gathering all the latent vulnerability and anxiety of this wonderful franchise into a remarkably lyrical conclusion, and a high point in Winterbottom’s career.