Just how long, exactly, is a midlife crisis supposed to last? Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan — or at least the fictionalized versions of themselves they play in their series of Trip movies—have gotten plenty of mileage out of theirs, and they show no signs of letting up. If you think of The Trip to Spain — which follows The Trip (2010) and The Trip to Italy (2014), all directed by Michael Winterbottom—as being strictly about the hang-ups of middle-aged guys, the movie isn’t likely to hold much allure for you.
But to ask only what a picture is “about” is to risk missing most of the picture. In The Trip to Spain, Brydon and Coogan — as they did in the earlier two films, all three pared down from longer TV series aired in the UK—aren’t performing strictly in the service of an overarching idea, that of men struggling with the challenges of aging. They’re really just using that idea as an excuse to get together and ham it up. Their freewheeling, improvisatory mode of one-upmanship has become a brand unto itself, a kind of Coca Cola of dueling male egos. When you come to a Trip picture, you know you’ll be getting more of the same: These movies are reliable quantities in an unreliable world.
To that end, the premise of this picture is approximately the same as that of the last two, to the point that Winterbottom truncates the opening scene into a Morse Code-style phone exchange consisting of half-finished sentences and glancing, if potent, pauses. Coogan rings up Brydon to ask if he’d like to come along on yet another of these swanky boondoggles he’s so good at hustling up, this time a weeklong jaunt through the Spanish countryside. He’ll work on a memoir during the trip; Brydon can review the tucked-away restaurants the duo will encounter on their journey. Brydon hesitates before responding. His young son, a new addition since the last film, opens his mighty jaws and yowls. That seals the deal. The two pack up their neat, wrinkle-free trousers, their button-down shirts and their Michael Caine impressions and head out in Coogan’s luxe-bourgeois Range Rover.
One ferry ride later they’re in Spain, at first encountering rain (not necessarily on the plain) but later, mostly, just sun: Winterbottom and cinematographer James Clarke take full advantage of it, showing us light-dappled towns spiraling into the hills and roads winding through lush, tree-studded terrain. Winterbottom is a gifted and extraordinarily versatile director. In the Trip projects, he may have found something of a meal ticket, but he still goes beyond the call of duty in making them cinematic: Even the shots of chefs doodling sauce on the edge of a plate have a pleasing, gentle sense of momentum.
But mostly, you’ve come to see Brydon and Coogan acting out, right? Their rapid-fire sentences overlap and outrace each other — Brydon and Coogan are like twin squirrels trying to climb a ladder at the same time. Coogan can’t stop puffing up his own ego, reminding Brydon at every turn that the film he co-wrote, produced and starred in, Philomena, was nominated for an Academy Award. Brydon, now a family man with a not particularly aggressive career plan, doesn’t care to hear it once, let alone three times. His deadpan reactions to Coogan’s spurtling nonsense are the best moments in the film—he’s cutting without saying a word, and he still manages to make it all funny. There are dueling David Bowie impersonations, lots of talk about Coogan’s romantic exploits (chiefly involving a much younger woman who also happens to be married), and, of course, the requisite Michael Caine-offs. Coogan also offers an ace impersonation of Mick Jagger, an act of mimicry involving perfectly tightened neck tendons, appropriately pouty lips and—the clincher—the occasional, offhanded over-the-shoulder handclap.
This is what it looks like when two exceedingly bright, appealing, past-middle-aged men face their respective disappointments. Maybe it stings a little more this time: Coogan is trim and toned, with a flattering haircut and no trace of the doughiness that, a few years back, seemed to be settling around his jaw. He really does look he could be king of his world—yet, once again, he can’t control it. What else is there to do but pick on the one guy who—in this semi-fictionalized friendship, at least—seems to understand him better than anyone, and who’s also dead-set against letting him get away with any of his nonsense? Even if you’re not an insecure middle-aged man yourself, chances are you at least know one, and he’s probably driving you crazy. Keep your eye on Brydon: He has some great tips for you.