For a few months, this summer I passed a theater near Lake and Hennepin that seemed to be always screening The Spanish Trip, Michael Winterbottom's new installment in a series of films featuring the British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. I drove by, saw some other films, but never went to this comedy. (Coogan is familiar to American audiences -- he has played a British villain a few times and wrote the sentimental, if very good, Philomena, the story of an Irish woman cruelly separated from her baby at birth who, in her old age, searches for the lost child and is reunited with him. Judy Dench starred in the movie. Brydon is not well-known to Americans; he is something like an even more maniacal Jim Carrey, not conventionally handsome but irresistibly engaging with sad puppy-dog eyes and an ingratiating manner.) These "trip" films, no less than the "Road to ---" series starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, are highly formulaic squabbling "buddy" pictures. In London, Coogan and Brydon, who play grotesque versions of themselves, are assigned a trip -- the two men go somewhere, rent a car, and drive through picturesque landscapes that are lovingly photographed. They stay at atmospheric country inns and eat world-class, high-tech meals. The men quarrel with one another and amuse themselves by doing pitch-perfect impressions of celebrities -- these scenes seem to be improvised with the actors striving to one-up each other. In The Spanish Trip, for instance, Coogan imitates Mick Jagger doing an impression of Michael Caine in Zulu; later, Brydon imitates Marlon Brando playing the role of Torquemada, the grand inquisitor. Some of the impressions are dizzying -- three layers deep: Mick Jagger imitating Anthony Hopkins who is doing an impression of James Dean. These sequences, which involve much braying and strutting and shouting, invariably take place while the men are eating at fantastically elite and expensive restaurants -- one of the film's curious aspects is that wild gesticulations of the two stars are intercut with images of the other patrons who seem to be completely oblivious to the weird antics occurring only a few feet from them. There is some aspect of My Dinner with Andrei in these films -- typically, Coogan plays himself as a searcher, someone on the prowl for erotic adventures, a man unhappy unless he is moving through strange and exotic landscapes; by contrast, Brydon plays hedgehog to Coogan's fox: he is down-to-earth, married with two children and a devoted wife, and the film contrasts his happy, if seemingly dull, home life with Coogan's perpetual, Faustian anhedonia -- his inability to be happy or to find any kind of lasting satisfaction in the places he visits. In The Trip to Spain, Coogan becomes increasingly distressed as the film progresses -- his American agents aren't making any headway in finding him roles in the USA (this is a constant theme in these films), his girlfriend is pregnant with another man's child, and his own son, who is supposed to meet him in Mallorca can't come because he has caused the pregnancy of his 19 year old girl friend; worst of all he can't get a film project "green-lighted." The final scenes in the film embody the contrast between the two men -- Brydon goes home to have sex with his wife, interrupted by a crying baby; then, we see him taking his older child to school; Coogan goes to Morocco, gets lost, and is last seen standing alone in the Sahara desert without water and with a stalled Land Rover -- a bus is approaching, a vision almost like a mirage, but it is unclear whether the people on the bus are friendly or, perhaps, something more problematic.
I never went to see The Spanish Trip when it was in the theaters. It seemed to me too inconsequential. But the show is worth watching on DVD or streaming on Netflix. The picture is pleasant enough and, in fact, the Spanish Trip is very carefully devised -- the imagery circles around Don Quixote (Coogan plays Quixote and Brydon plays Sancho Panza) in a photographic shoot at La Mancha; Coogan says that Don Quixote, in his delusion, thought country inns were castles. Brydon points out that the two men are staying in actual castles now repurposed to be country inns. The song "The Windmills of your Mind" re-occurs at various times and there is also some discussion of the tragedies in the Spanish Civil War. Brydon and Coogan don't seem to like one another all that much and the film doesn't make any effort to soften their jousting -- they seem to want to inflict actual harm on one another and a lot of their banter is very harsh. This is a buddy film in which the protagonist aren't buddies at all. Brydon's impressions get on everyone's nerves and the film doesn't shy away from this unpleasantness either -- in one extended scene in Granada, there is conversation about the "Moor's last sigh" (the expulsion of the Moor's from Spain): Brydon interprets Moor as Roger Moore and does an extended and very irritating imitation of Moore as James Bond. (Both men are obsessed with impressions of the various actors playing James Bond -- there are also innumerable impressions of Sean Connery.) Brydon won't give up on the impression and runs it into the ground and, then, some -- everyone is obviously very upset with his showing off in this way and it's not really funny and, even seems culturally insensitive, a way to not talk about the mistreatment of the Muslims in Spain or the Alhambra or something possible relevant and meaningful -- so the whole scene plays as more (Moor or Moore) than a little bit cringe-worthy. (The next morning, Coogan goes to the Alhambra before dawn to avoid the tourists, drags himself through its various wonders, and doesn't have much to say about the experience which is shown to be strangely disheartening. The places where the men eat seem to serve tiny plates with elaborate constructed foods on them -- the film is designed in a similar way. You get just enough beautiful landscape and gorgeous architecture to keep you hungry. Winterbottom cuts away from the fantastically picturesque mountains and canyons and old castles before you are satiated -- he leaves you always wanting a little more than you are given. As the movie progresses, the self-assured and insouciant Coogan becomes more and more beat down -- at the end of the movie, he looks old and very weary. Brydon, by contrast, seems revived by his family. The film begins with a beautiful song, Louis Armstrong singing about the fog in old London town and, at the end of the movie, the golden mist rolls into Gibralter from Africa seducing Coogan into taking a car-ferry across the strait into Morocco. The film isn't really narrative and its not documentary -- it's comical in parts but not really funny and there is a tinge of melancholy about the whole enterprise. The best way to describe the picture is that it is a species of film poetry -- variations on a theme that involves vague impressions of Spain, Don Quixote, the Spanish Civil War, mist and rain, all suffused in a rich atmosphere of middle-aged disenchantment. The movie is too slight for a theater but works fine, indeed, more than fine, in fact, on TV.