The Trip to Spain

August 3, 2017
Lunching in La Mancha.. Brydon as Sancho, Coogan as the Don
Lunching in La Mancha.. Brydon as Sancho, Coogan as the Don

In 2010 Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon took us on a culinary tour around the Lake District, in 2014 they ate their way through Italy. Now, reunited with director, Michael Winterbottom, they’re off to Spain. Long may their travels continue.

The premise, as ever, is for these two sometime friends to visit a series of renowned restaurants to write newspaper features. This time Rob will be reporting for the Observer, while Steve – in his new transatlantic mode – is filing for the New York Times.

One of the pleasures of these films is the perpetual fluctuation between fiction and reality. The protagonists play versions of themselves, suggesting that everything we are watching is true to life, although a large part of the biographical material is made up.

Since their previous palate-teasing excursion the real Coogan has enjoyed success as an actor and co-writer with Stephen Frears’s Philomena (2013). That success has gone to the head of the fictional Coogan who has become a dedicated student of himself with a line in self-consciousness that would enbarrass Woody Allen. He talks constantly about Philomena, and reflects on his own development as a dramatic actor and writer. Brydon counters by boasting that David Bowie followed him on Twitter, or that Mick Jagger recognised him coming out of a party.

We have to assume the real Coogan is less of a narcissist, but he’s drawing on an aspect of his personality that is only partially buried. The running joke is that while he talks about his newfound success, it seems to be slipping away. His New York agent has quit the company, leaving him in the hands of a junior. His latest movie script is being “polished” by another writer. None of this features in his table talk.

As the film continues, Coogan’s life and career seem increasingly hollow, while Brydon is making stealthy progress. Coogan says he has re-established a romance with Mischa, his grilfriend from the first Trip, who now happens to be married. Brydon has the stable package of wife, small children and a house in the suburbs. The nature of their relationship is driven home by a scene in which they pose as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for a photo shoot.

The ongoing saga of Coogan’s mid-life crisis almost overshadows the food in this travelogue, but we still get six not-exactly-square meals, starting in Santander and ending in Málaga. Each of these Trips has begun life as a six-part TV series, with a featured restaurant for each episode. In the condensations made for the cinema we pass more quickly over the delicacies of the table.

Amid the tapas and rioja, the queso and jamon, the slices of chorizo and the seafood, there’s ample opportunity for the diners to reignite their war of impersonations. In the past they competed over who could do the best Michael Caine. This time we get Al Pacino, Mick Jagger, Sean Connery, David Bowie, and a formidable Roger Moore. For added degree of difficulty, Brydon has a go at Mick Jagger doing a Michael Caine impersonation.

The story, thin as it is, acts as a framework upon which Coogan and Brydon improvise, almost by free association. A discussion of Spain under the Moors leads to tit-for-tat Roger Moore impersonations. The idea of Don Quixote tilting at windmills gets them started on Windmills of Your Mind, sung by the now-forgotten Noel Harrison, as the theme for the movie, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). They’re not drawing on memories, but on their acquired knowledge of British pop culture. In 1968 Coogan and Brydon were both 3 years old. Michel Legrand, who wrote the tune (with some help from Mozart), never scores a mention.

Both men are feeling their age in this film, but with the passing years comes a greater childishness. In an effort to work off the gourmandising Brydon goes jogging, and Coogan takes to a bicycle. Their verbal exchanges are faster, more edgy and competitive. When two women are present at a meal they scramble furiously to score points off each other. It’s funny in a manic, relentless way, but there’s a melancholy undercurrent.

Feeling that he has to capitalise on his 2014 Academy Award script-writing nomination for Philomena (the Oscar went to 12 Years a Slave), Coogan has decided to write a Laurie Lee-style memoir about his first visit to Spain when he was 18, and his return in later life. To get in the mood he’s brought along a copy of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, but doesn’t seem to make much progress.

As comedies the Trip movies have sparked a surprising amount of serious reflection, from discussions of “masculinity” and its dilemmas, to a highflown literary essay in the online magazine, Senses of Cinema. This may seem over-the-top, but such responses are a tribute to the subtlety and simplicity of the format, and the virtuosity of the two leads. As Coogan knows, the actor who poses as an intellectual is bound to come across as a great comedian.

The Trip to Spain
Written & directed by Michael Winterbottom
Starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
UK rated M, 115 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 5 August, 2017