“Our gentleman was approximately fifty years old; his complexion was weathered, his flesh scrawny, his face gaunt, and he was a very early riser and a great lover of the hunt.” What the description lacks in flattery it redeems with comic affection. A few pages later, Cervantes’ Don Quixote (by way of Edith Grossman’s English translation) imagines describing himself, to a love interest, as “never sufficiently praised.” Can you picture Steve Coogan in the role? Gone bonkers from reading too many books, yearning for a campaign of romantic chivalry and publicly displayed valor, Quixote recruits his farmer neighbor Sancho Panza, “a good man…without much in the way of brains,” who, when promised an island, “left his wife and children and agreed to be his neighbor’s squire.” Here, how about Rob Brydon? Assuming you even know who he is.
It was Brydon, in 2010’s The Trip, who wryly described Coogan as “a British Don Quixote,” intending both compliment and critique. Now two sequels later, the duo and their director Michael Winterbottom have literalized that idea, in their mordant way, with The Trip to Spain. As in the first film and in 2014’s The Trip to Italy, Coogan and Brydon play glancingly satirized versions of themselves, traveling together by car among historic sites, dining in fine restaurants, and filing journalistic dispatches. This cursory pretext affords bonding by way of taking the piss, impersonating better-known Brits (and some Americans) whose fame they envy and admire, and brooding on—while also inevitably exacerbating—the shortcomings of their own professional and personal lives.
Winterbottom won’t be described as woke anytime soon, but his manner here is assuredly brisk. (Coogan, insisting he’s in his prime: “There’s a lot of gender swapping going on now in big roles. I could play Miss Jean Brodie.”) Meditation on aging and actorly narcissism can be a delicate art, particularly when involving that now forlornly unfashionable creature, the midlife heterosexual white man, unheroic after all and adrift in his privilege. Helpfully, maybe, the Coogan and Brydon characters hail from a long cultural line of tensely symbiotic twosomes: not just Quixote and Panza, but Laurel and Hardy, or Vladimir and Estragon, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Or Scylla and Charybdis? Take your pick.
“You can’t have everything,” the men lament to each other over mouthfuls of fresh anchovies midway through their latest excursion. Then the discussion about having children later in life leads to dueling Mick Jagger impressions, which in turn leads to impressions of Mick Jagger doing an impression of their dueling Michael Caine impressions. Later, stakes rise as Winterbottom holds us hostage to some passive-aggressive brinksmanship between Coogan mansplaining about the Moors and Brydon impersonating Roger Moore. Like the luxe entrées presented to them throughout the journey, the whole scenario is at once delectable and ludicrously overwrought; it takes a certain frame of mind, but once in it you really can eat this stuff up.
How much longer it can go on is the higher-level question. Already it’s gone on longer than may be readily apparent—since even before the first Trip. Brydon showed up as a tactically occasional Coogan foil in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, in 2002, and then their vanity-joust coalesced as a through-line in his Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, in 2005. In fact, it’s in Winterbottom’s aptly deconstructive riff on Laurence Sterne’s self-referential novel that we first heard Coogan approvingly describe Cervantes’ self-referential novel, as “post-modern before there was even a modern to be post of.” Though the Trip series boldly has veered into meta-abstraction, stripping away the encumbrance of a literary framework, there is something fitting about it all coming back to Don Quixote—a Cervantean idea that sometimes travel may be a manner of evasion, but then so parody may be a manner of purity.
Condensed into films from episodic TV shows, the Trip franchise is by now unabashedly a commercial calculation—saturated, albeit very drily, with self-awareness as regards the going through of motions. Though lauded by BAFTA in the comedy categories, the series over time has come to assume a tragic attitude. “Don’t you think everything’s melancholic once you get to a certain age?” Brydon had asked very sincerely back in Italy, and here in Spain awaits a purgatory of repeated confirmation. Even a jag of David Bowie singing to himself about deciding to follow Brydon on Twitter is as least as mournful as it is funny. And what is mortality, after all, if not the expression of an enjoyable premise proving itself unsustainable? The persistence of Winterbottom’s longitudinal Coogan-Brydon study becomes all the more affecting for its risk of wearing out an already dubious welcome. If not as wistfully evocative as a Richard Linklater project, or as bracing as one of Michael Apted’s mathematically recurrent sociologies, it will at least maintain the virtue of being genuinely quixotic.