When Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, and director Michael Winterbottom decided to make a sequel to their popular buddy-comedy travelogue The Trip, all involved apparently assumed that a little self-aware Scream 2 lampshading was necessary. Sequels are never as good as the original, the British funnymen joked early into The Trip To Italy, a sequel that turned out to be (surprise!) not as good as the original. Now the three have reunited once more for The Trip To Spain, and right on cue, Coogan and Brydon are awkwardly slipping talk of trilogies into their improvised banter. Thing is, this third movie plays less like some bookend chapter of a complete saga than a floundering middle season of a television show that’s settled into a formulaic groove—which makes sense, given that each Trip is actually a condensed version of an episodic miniseries that aired on British television first. It would have been more appropriate, in other words, for these bickering fiftysomething travelers to make wink-wink references to a sitcom that’s overstayed its welcome.
If you’ve seen either of the other movies, you’ve seen The Trip To Spain, whose variations are minor enough to be called negligible. Once again, Coogan and Brydon—or rather, fictionalized versions of the real men playing them—embark on a week-long restaurant tour through a scenic European country. (Not that it remotely matters, but it’s Coogan this time who’s been commissioned to play travel writer, inviting Brydon along for the ride.) Over extravagant gourmet feasts, the two passive-aggressively snipe at each other’s egos and perform hit-or-miss impressions (yes, Michael Caine gets parroted again—they’ve sucked every last laugh out of the bit, sadly), while Winterbottom dutifully cuts away to footage of chefs preparing the delectable meals. Between these baggy scenes of ad-libbed antagonism, the two actors grapple with perfunctory personal and professional issues, answering the occasional serious phone call. Emma (Claire Keelan), the photographer Coogan slept with in the original, also makes a third appearance, though the character has even less to do than usual; mostly, she’s around just to chuckle at the guys’ dinner-theater pissing contests.
This is, admittedly, the best-looking of the Trip franchise, with rookie cinematographer James Clarke really reveling in the natural and manmade beauty of Spain’s Lake District and offering handsome overhead shots of the guys cruising through splendiferous stretches of countryside. (If these movies have always been conceived as parodies of celebrity-hosted travel porn, they’ve come closest here to approximating the virtues of the real deal.) From the start, this unlikely series has not so secretly meditated on the aging process, landing notes of melancholy alongside the shaggy conversational humor. Unfortunately, the characters’ fatigue seems to have seeped into the creative process; making us suspect that Coogan and Brydon are as bored and tired of this as “Coogan” and “Brydon” are isn’t the most productive meta direction for the franchise to take.
There’s a decent running gag about Coogan constantly slipping the success of his Oscar-nominated Philomena into conversation, and a funny bit of the two stars offering dueling David Bowies. (The scene pivots from a sobering discussion of mortality to a bragging anecdote about being followed by the late rock star on Twitter—a microcosm for this whole series, really.) Mostly, though, Coogan and Brydon just recycle shtick, down to the targets of their impersonations. Watching The Trip To Spain, one realizes that the relationship between the two characters hasn’t evolved at all; it’s the same competitive fraternal bond, with only the specific backdrops changing from movie to movie. What no one says aloud, during that brief discussion at the start, is that actual trilogies tend to possess some kind of arc, some direction for the characters. The Trip series is a road to nowhere; “I’ll see you… in another country,” Brydon lampshades again at the end, all but acknowledging that they’ll be back to do this all again, just over different plates of food and against different geographies. The best one can hope for, perhaps, is some circular motion for the humor. Will that damn Caine impression have moved back around to funny again by the time the guys set out on their inevitable trip to France?