Editing a mini-series into a feature film isn’t an uncommon practice in Hollywood. It was often done to maximize profits at a time when perhaps not everyone had TV, or when televisions were still shitty enough that much of the spectacle was lost on your 13-inch boob tube. Sometimes less-than-scrupulous purse-handlers would pass off the final edit as a brand new movie, even though they’d basically just strung five episodes of a television arc together and slapped new credits at the front and the back.
None of these things apply to The Trip to Spain, the third collaboration between Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Binge-watching is the name of the game these days; people want more TV, not less, and chances are that most people will not go to theatres to catch this latest installment.
There’s something to be said for the conciseness of these projects, however. Each Trip to… movie is condensed from a six-part BBC series that’s as much about the actual touristic appeal of the places the hosts go as it is about their sometimes-fraught friendship. They have a bit of a meta quality to them, existing as both a parody of bourgeois travel shows and a perfect example of them. In the feature film versions, Winterbottom removes almost all of the Sunday-afternoon BBC chaff and focuses on the comedy. While I have to assume that some choice bits get taken out, The Trip to Spain is pound-for-pound as good and as funny as its predecessors.
Of course, not that much has changed. The film finds Brydon living with his wife and two young children in London, his career having been boosted by a role in The Huntsman that offers opportunities he’s reticent to take for the sake of his family. Commissioned by The New York Times to write some restaurant reviews on a week-long trip to Spain, he teams up with his more roguish, significantly more famous pal Coogan, who’s also using a restaurant-review opportunity to retrace the steps of a trip he took as a young man and piggyback on the work of poet Laurie Lee to deliver his own (pretty derivative, if you ask me) memoir of his time in Spain. Coogan is stuck in a bit of a navel-gazey spiral, having been nominated for an Oscar for the very Oscar-baity Philomena and yet finding it difficult to have his other projects greenlit.
The Trip to Spain furthers the frenemy sparring match between Coogan and Brydon. Both have an undeniable fondness for the other but also a natural combativeness. Brydon, ever the underdog, seemingly has the upper hand now, content with his unflashy life as Coogan’s braggadocio covers up an unfulfilling professional and personal life. The friendly animosity between the two has always driven these films, but this time it’s also tinted with a sense of mortality and the passing of time.
Always sort of loutish and assuming that he had all the time in the world to accomplish whatever it is he has in mind, Coogan here finds himself replaceable – replaceable as a writer, as a friend, as a lover. His particularly clueless version of mansplaining becomes a sort of safety net here, less a territorial show of power and more of a sad attempt at keeping control. It doesn’t make The Trip to Spain any less funny, but it does make it different enough from its predecessors not to feel like a complete retread.
I don’t necessarily love the film’s prettier, more overly touristic impulses. Bits of the Food Network-y aspects of the full-length series remain, and as much as I love to see some guy roast some squid or whatever the hell else, it’s sometimes too obvious that these sequences are essentially just used to smooth out the structure of a film that’s essentially one third of its original form. It’s sort of an anal nitpick, I’ll admit, but it seems like these should be as invisible as possible in the feature version of the film.
The Trip was, of course, the film that launched a thousand Michael Caine impressions, and if impressions are what you’re looking for, impressions are what you’ll get here. Mick Jagger, Al Pacino, Roger Moore, Sean Connery and even John Hurt go through the ringer in a way that never really feels anything less than organic. The existential slackness of these movies is what I (and I have to assume everyone else) enjoy about them, and The Trip to Spain feels like picking up where we left off in the best possible way. ■
The Trip to Spain opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 4. Watch the trailer here: