Director: Michael Winterbottom
Runtime: She was only 115 minutes long! You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!
The Trip to Spain is not only generous enough to have provided me with some warmth and smiles over its duration, but it also saves me the hassle of an explanatory title sentence, as the themes of The Trip to Spain are fairly obvious. It’s about a trip to Spain. Actually, you may not be familiar with The Trip series. It’s a BBC-commissioned television series that follows British comedians and personalities Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (played by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) as they review restaurants across Europe and do impressions, at least nine of which are Michael Caine. No, but seriously, look up their Michael Caine impressions. Each series, consisting of six episodes, seems to get packaged into some sort of film presentation for Sundance—so you may consume it either episodically or in edited feature film form. For the record, I saw the film version.
Coogan is someone you’ve probably heard of. Whether it’s via his Alan Partridge character, or his breakthrough into North American cinema. Hamlet 2 is worth exposing yourself to; somehow the plot within that plot leads to the characters of its characters singing a song called “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus”. Coogan seems to be more generally en vogue than I am an avid consumer of his produced content. I’ve found him fun in basically every role I’ve encountered him in, though. I am more actively an appreciator of Rob Brydon of Gavin & Stacey fame, generally for his appearances around the British comedy panel circuit, and his mediation between David Mitchell and Lee Mack on Would I Lie to You?. Coogan is clearly the bigger star of the two, and The Trip series has a little bit of fun with that dynamic, which sees Coogan and Brydon play into fictionalised versions of themselves. Director Michael Winterbottom got them together for Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story (2006), and they’ve been coming together occasionally for these The Trip instalments ever since.
Growing up, it was common to hear from my elders that British comedy was so much smarter than American comedy. This never sat right with me, given that I grew up with The Simpsons, and then encountered Scrubs and Arrested Development in my later formative years. Watching some of the slapstick and cross-dressing for laughs in classic British comedy made me think that its “intelligence” was something of a projected snobbery against American comedy. As I have matured myself, and spent a lot of time meditating on what the Atlantic Ocean does to taste, I think something I greatly admire about British comedy is how it relies on dynamics and playing off other people. It’s a far less selfish and ego-driven presentation to being a funny person. In America, stand-up comedians do their bits and maybe eventually become film stars, where they develop a shtick that they are able to beat into the ground repeatedly. Occasionally you do the shtick with the same person a few times, or you shake it up by doing your thing as loudly as you can right next to someone else doing something as loudly as you can. In British comedy, there is something more personal and tweaked about every situation—say as the self-resigned neuroses of a David Mitchell clash against the brash working class bravado of a Lee Mack. That organic level of improvisation raised to a production-level almost always lends itself to adjectives of “witty” and “bitingly funny” “light entertainment”. I wonder if the kids I adopt in this post-Brexit world will read my praise and think me a rambling old man who just has something against the yanks because they keep watching Adam Sandler on Netflix. Yes, frankly—I am bitter about that. Give me Mitchell & Webb and Peep Show over Sandler & Schneider and dark, lonely thoughts any day.
Coogan and Brydon have that level of banter going on. The obvious dichotomy they go for between Coogan being the hip Hollywood guy who has lots of sex, and Brydon being the happily married father of two might feel a bit treacled on, but it didn’t make me feel sick to my stomach like the message of an American pop-song from the hit brigade trying to force me to internalise its chorus. I get it “Baby, Oh”. Whatever that means. Just please stop and leave me to my Radio 4. They’re never boring, always natural, to the point where it feels like these fictionalised versions of themselves must surely get on each other’s fictionalised nerves occasionally.
And you do expect manufactured drama. Film has conditioned us to expect that. The Trip to Spain mainly just wants to slightly amuse us with their personalities with shots of beautiful scenery and food being spliced in. Winterbottom does give us at least two bird’s-eye shots however, so there’s a safety net for those of us more used to conventions. Bird’s-eye of the car driving that is; not Birds Eye Fish Fingers. This time. The Trip to Matt’s House might be done if the European Union collapses, and that might be all I can serve them up. But for now, The Trip to Spain has fun playing with our expectations of some sort of rift to develop between Coogan and Brydon, that plays with their fates in existential ways, and it has a lot of fun either defusing that or paying it off.
I’d be lying if I said that The Trip to Spain was “laugh-a-minute”. It’s genuinely funny and charming, but not in any sort of revolutionarily uproarious sort of way. It’s not trying to achieve that. It’s tapping into the qualities of a My Dinner with Andre (1981) and presenting them in a travelogue fashion, and sexing it up with food porn. It succeeds at doing that, for the most part. I’m not champing at the bit (thank you to an American comedy legend, George Carlin, for clearing that expression up for me) for the next entry into this series, but it’s going to be something I am going to be happy to watch when it comes out. It didn’t make me laugh so hard I wet myself, but I thank it for that, since I rarely take a spare pair of trousers to the pictures anyway. It did, however, put me into the mood for friends, food, wine, family, more wine, travel, and to go and re-watch A Cock & Bull Story—which I did wear a nappy for. The Trip to Spain, without being overly sophisticated, felt culturally fulfilling. Given that Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) is still playing in cinemas, I think that is something we could all use in our lives.