Late in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Spain, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing the prickly versions of themselves that they’ve honed over the course of two prior Trip films, meet a young musician who’s playing in a Spanish courtyard for tips. When Steve gives the man money and eventually invites him over for a drink, the musician makes the mistake of recommending cities in Spain that Steve and Rob should visit, such as Valencia. His sense of erudition threatened, Steve retreats and leaves Rob at the table with their guest before they’ve barely begun their round of drinks.
This scene embodies the governing punchline of this series, which follows two successful men as they embark on beautiful journeys that are unavailable to most people, only to reveal themselves to be locked in their narcissistic prisons. For all of Steve’s blathering about writing a book on Spain, which is to contrast his youthful adventures with his travels as a middle-aged man, he’s unable to deviate from a rigid path that nurtures his illusion of himself as a man of the world. Steve’s humiliating moment with the musician resonantly acknowledges the intense fear that governs people who’re either afraid to travel or who only travel in a cocoon of sycophantic privilege.
Yet, there’s a thin line between dramatizing rigidity and succumbing to it, as The Trip and The Trip to Italy also parody Steve and Rob’s myopia with little tonal variation. The films, and the respective limited series that yielded them, are each governed by an identical structure: Steve and Rob travel to a country, eat rarefied cuisine, visit historical sites, and savor the astonishing landscapes while quietly working through a personal or professional dilemma.
The premise of director Michael Winterbottom’s series has devolved from moderately diverting to actively stifling.
The Trip to Italy had a sense of blossoming grandeur, suggesting that Winterbottom and his actors were in the process of finding a way to shake this premise out of its self-congratulatory and self-loathing stupor. That film reversed Steve and Rob’s roles from The Trip, turning Rob into a lone romantic wolf while Steve attempted to bridge his fractured relationship with his son. The Trip to Spain disappointingly resets them to their starting positions: Steve’s dating a younger woman while Rob’s back with his family. Which is to say that the events of the last film didn’t ultimately change anything.
So we’re back with the fellas per the inescapable dictates of formula, as Steve pretentiously discusses the Moors’ occupation of Spain while Rob interrupts him with a Roger Moore impression—a bit that quickly goes from tedious to pointedly interminable. By the end of the encounter, one may wish for hostage negotiators to swoop in and save the two women who’re stuck witnessing the spectacle of men trying to spin their mutual resentment into a variety-show sketch. Other vignettes are more amusing, such as Steve’s condescending assertion that Rob’s boots are “good intermediate walking shoes,” or their dueling Marlon Brando impressions in a castle that was reportedly used for the filming of Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.
The premise of this series, however, has devolved from moderately diverting to actively stifling. Steve and Rob never engage with one another and truly discuss the food in front of them, the women in their lives, or the land they navigate. For all their showmanship, they never really say anything. Steve’s taste for global history is understood as an attention-getting gambit, as he vomits up factoids with no interest in how his conversational partners might reply or in what they may teach him. Though Rob positions himself as the milder, humbler foil, the Sancho to Steve’s Quixote, he isn’t any more interesting. Where are these men’s souls, the element inside them that presumably fuels their art and their relationships with significant others? Winterbottom and Coogan and Brydon revel in the characters’ evasion without examining it, utilizing it instead as an excuse to indulge a parody of narcissism that’s indistinguishable from the real McCoy. The filmmakers have grown too comfortable boring us to tears in the service of comic obstinacy.