Banter, Stage Left | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Banter, Stage Left 

The Trip to Spain is funniest when it's not trying to be a movie.

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As movie trilogies go, The Trip is certainly an odd one. In part, that's because the three movies didn't begin as movies, but as a six-part BBC TV series—collaborations between director Michael Winterbottom and actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing loosely fictionalized versions of themselves—edited down to feature length. But it's also because, perhaps by virtue of the editing required for theatrical presentation, it's not entirely clear what these movies are meant to be.

On the one hand—and on the level that they've always worked best—they're simply delightful hangout pictures taking advantage of the prickly frenemy chemistry between the two leads. As was the case in 2010's The Trip and 2014's The Trip to Italy, this version finds an excuse to send Coogan and Brydon out on the road together, ostensibly some journalistic assignment to eat in great European restaurants and see the sights. So they set out on a weeklong excursion to Spain, eating delicious food and serving up equally delicious banter.

Their largely improvised exchanges—there's not even a writing credit associated with The Trip to Spain—provide the bulk of the material, and once again it's generally hilarious watching Coogan and Brydon serve-and-volley their comedic gifts. By now there's a bit of a formula to those exchanges, often involving the pair stumbling upon a celebrity who becomes the subject of dueling impressions. Where The Trip memorably showcased their respective takes on Michael Caine, and The Trip to Italy found them running through the various James Bond actors, here they compete over the proper way to impersonate Mick Jagger, or what it would sound like if David Bowie were trying to convince someone to follow him on Twitter.

Those scenes are still crackling comedic bits, familiar though the rhythms now are. Much of the relationship between the Coogan and Brydon we see in these movies is built on professional competitiveness, and Winterbottom knows by now how to optimize that dynamic. Often that means Coogan—theoretically the more famous alpha-dog of the pair—slow-burning whenever Brydon attempts to one-up him or refuses to let a particular premise wind down, like when the latter takes off on a seemingly endless riff involving Roger Moore and the Spanish Moors. While Brydon is presented as the more easygoing of the two, it's always clear how much he enjoys showing off his own skills—and if those skills make Coogan ever-so-slightly more insecure, all the better.

Yet venturing into that territory of the characters' insecurities and personalities is exactly where these movies get harder to figure out. All three of them have included personal asides—usually when they're not together, and are making personal or professional phone calls—that emphasize Coogan as a divorced dad perpetually chasing career opportunities, while Brydon is a family man content to enjoy what life brings him. The most amusing such material here finds Coogan perpetually reminding people of his Oscar nominations (as co-writer and producer) for Philomena, and unable to understand why that achievement isn't granting him carte blanche to get his next pet project rolling.

In theory, those scenes should provide a richer context for the interactions between our protagonists, emphasizing why Coogan can't stand being upstaged by his second-banana. Those moments, however, generally feel more clipped and truncated, perhaps indicating that the background material takes the brunt of the TV-to-cinema editing in favor of the flat-out comedy. There's a sense that these movies are trying to creep into the same passage-of-time thematic territory as the Hawke/Delpy Before trilogy, with comments about certain leading-man rolls having passed the 50-something actors by, and Coogan discovering that his 20-year-old son is about to be a father. They just never quite achieve the same sense of accumulated consequence—especially when one of the key plot developments from The Trip to Italy, involving Brydon's brief extramarital fling, never comes up once.

It's obvious how much these movies depend on the episodic nature of the individual dinner conversations when The Trip to Spain ends in as weirdly abrupt a manner as any movie in recent memory. There's plenty of fun in the individual bits of verbal pas-de-deux; there's just not much reason to care about the material attempting to connect them. That's what happens when a wonderful sketch-comedy series tries to do an impression of an actual movie.

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