“The Trip to Spain” runs exactly like one would expect from the third installment of a comedic culinary travelogue — a cheeky but tired retread that cheapens the artistic and gastronomic richness of the series’ first two chapters.
Following the format established by their 2010 film “The Trip” and their 2014 sequel, “The Trip to Italy,” comedians Steven Coogan and Rob Brydon next turned their attention toward the Spanish coast, playing lightly fictionalized versions of themselves as they riff impressions over a series of meals sampling the local cuisine. There’s the semblance of a plot — Coogan and Brydon are in Spain to write food reviews for separate print publications, and both grapple with the occasional jaded familial and career drama — but it largely serves as narrative fluff to allow for the dining comedy that provides the film’s backbone.
Ultimately, “The Trip to Spain” suffers from an identity crisis. The film feels stuck somewhere between an irreverent and plotless food feature that defies genre conventions and a more thoughtful story concerned with the kind of existential questions usually reserved for more serious “road trip” movies.
In Coogan and Brydon’s capable hands, “The Trip to Spain” teases viewers with occasional flashes of a tighter and established genre film. Certainly, the “Trip” series is a triumph of the comedians’ collective atmospheric vernacular, which is at turns both academic and improvisational. The pair are most famous for their celebrity impressions, in particular their hilarious Michael Caine parody, and make sure to include an abundance of these sketches throughout the movie. The film’s appeal peaks in the moments when Coogan and Brydon’s characters flit between dinner conversation and impersonations seamlessly, lending an ad-libbed authenticity to the scenes. One brief episode involving impressions of Marlon Brando and Woody Allen against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition proves delightful. Brydon especially dazzles, conferring his humor with a learned wit and impishness he has honed over the years as a veteran of the British late-night quiz show circuit.
Too frequently, however, the film falls back on old jokes from its prior two installments. The Michael Caine impression has been wrung of all its comedic potential, but the pair devotes several scenes to replaying that tired masquerade. You would expect a fresher effort from Coogan, Brydon and veteran director Michael Winterbottom — or at the very least an attempt to take the series in a different direction creatively.
The germ of that creative idea can be found in the film’s more somber and plot-driven nature. Coogan, in particular, endures several crises that could have been mined for more serious character development. The story lightly dances around its thematic undertones, and the several references made to Miguel de Cervantes offered a ripe opportunity for the film and its subjects to assume the kind of self-awareness that is largely put on the back burner in favor of comedy.
Perhaps Coogan and Brydon should take a cue from “Travel Man,” the British Channel 4 comedy starring Richard Ayoade, who, like Brydon, is a fellow veteran of the quiz show circuit. The show pairs Ayoade with another comedian and follows their exploits over the course of 48 hours, with each new episode featuring adventures in a different major city. “Travel Man” largely eschews plot or thematic intent, instead allowing Ayoade’s carefully crafted absurdity to spin its own creative web. Unlike “Travel Man,” “The Trip to Spain” often doesn’t know what it wants to be, which ultimately ruins the moments when it does.