In the third incarnation of The Trip series, The Trip To Spain, director Michael Winterbottom and stars Steve Coogan, and Rob Brydon stay relevant by hardly changing at all. That’s an unusual feat. Normally, a shtick ceases to be interesting as soon as you can identify it. Jokes are like music, where the creators take great pains to disguise the underlying math — a phenomenon perhaps best illustrated by Dana Carvey’s impression of a musician who makes a surprised face at his own chord changes. The magic of The Trip movies is that I know this shtick. I could write a Ted Talk or PowerPoint presentation about this shtick. And yet here I am still enjoying it, three films in. It’s fitting that the series is set in restaurants, because the films themselves have begun to function like a favorite restaurant: I know exactly what I’m getting and I couldn’t be happier when I get it.
The Trip series airs as a television show in the UK before being edited into films for international audiences only vaguely familiar with Coogan and Brydon (an aspect of their personae frequently played for laughs). The format is a semi-autobiographical road trip comedy set in fine restaurants, sort of like Curb Your Enthusiasm meets No Reservations. (It now occurs to me that Coogan and Brydon doing Anthony Bourdain as Michael Caine would be a fine addition.) The draw is that Coogan and Brydon spend the entire time riffing and busting each other’s balls, and they’re very good at that, in a smugly British way.
It’s been seven years since The Trip and three since The Trip To Italy, and comedy formats tend to get stale in much less time. How many comedy sequels are actually good, let alone comedy threequels? The Trip To Spain has virtually the exact same structure as the previous two — a road trip to a foreign land, featuring car scenes, restaurant scenes, phone calls to agents, phone calls to loved ones, career troubles, relationship complications, a silly promotional photoshoot, a sad thing, ennui, and constant impressions — but the beauty of The Trip series is that its structure is a means to no structure. It flows languidly from one subject to the next, almost more like a podcast than a show or movie. The casualness of it lulls you into a trance-like state where you’re much more open to the subtle charms of, say, Steve Coogan’s Mick Jagger impression (which kills me, even when I’ve already seen it, even when I know it’s coming).
The Trip is more a feeling than a story, a place you like to visit. Coogan and Brydon don’t feel like they’re repeating old jokes so much as just doing what they do. It’s easy to watch them do impressions over and over, even old ones, because it’s almost always delivered not with a flourish, “Watch me do this impression!” — but with practiced reluctance — “Oh God, I guess we’re doing this again.”
Somehow it makes impressions much less obnoxious and camp when there’s another person there ridiculing it. Likewise, they’ve both — and especially Coogan — mastered the art of being simultaneously charming and pompous, self-regarding in a way that’s laughable, yet universal. Brydon’s impressions are always just slightly worse, but it wouldn’t work without his more open, gregarious clownishness, the McCartney to Coogan’s Lennon, the tool and the misanthrope.
The usual way to craft a comedic team would be to create an odd couple, a Laurel and a Hardy, an Oscar and a Felix. But part of what makes Coogan-Brydon so compelling is that they’re almost the same guy. Yet the more you watch, the more they become distinct from one another in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on. It gives their barbs not just bite, but pathos, to know that they’re always going in on the other for things they don’t like about themselves.
The format is inherently expansive, but the best owns are brutally succinct, such as when Brydon is bemoaning his small feet, which would be, “not the first thing I’d change about myself, but on the list.”
“Right, no, it’d be feet, height, hair, wouldn’t it,” says Coogan, with ruthless specificity.
Coogan and Brydon are getting older, and age-related jokes begin to creep in more often than before, as they should. But like everything else in The Trip, it works mostly because they refuse to make a big thing about it. The key to the entire series might be its very British restraint. There aren’t any hijinks-y set pieces or plots that hinge on wild coincidence, and never the sense that there’s a joke metronome where the filmmakers might die if there’s not a laugh line every 17 seconds. That means there’s no off-putting desperation, even in a series about inherently desperate individuals — just the feeling of light humor lapping at your feet like waves in a sunset beach chair. I always love coming here.