Lots of movies explore teenage life. Plenty depict early adulthood. A fair number of movies focus on being old. Few focus on middle age. There’s just something inherently dull about the years between 40 and 65. You’re not falling in love for the first time. You’re not figuring out who you are. You’re not making your name. You’re not dying. You’re not trying to figure out the story of your life as you gaze at death. No. You’re going to work. You’re raising kids. You’re paying bills. You’re in the middle, between the exuberance and anxiety of youth and the reflection and uncertainty of old age. Life is more stable and predictable and boring. At least that’s how middle age is generally depicted in culture. Once in a while, though, someone will come along and make a movie that maps a little more of this territory. The Trip to Spain is one of these movies.
The Trip to Spain is the third film in The Trip series, and reunites comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon with director Michael Winterbottom for another gustatory road trip. The set up for the film is identical to the previous entries in the series. Just like The Trip and The Trip to Italy, The Trip to Spain again sees Coogan and Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves driving around the countryside together while eating at fancy restaurants, bickering, and doing impressions of celebrities. Of course, everyone familiar with this series knows that the set up is simply an excuse to watch this duo interact.
Going into the film, I was concerned that the repetitive set up of the films would make the third entry stale. The first film felt like a fresh take on the buddy road trip film. The frenemy dynamic of these two whip smart comedians combined with an unusual level of depth in its protagonists created a fascinating character study of two successful men and their diverging paths through life. The film was at once hilarious, melancholy, and insightful. By the third repetition of this formula, it would be easy for a successful series to fall into a complacent pattern. Thankfully The Trip to Spain does no such thing. Central to the success of this film is the continuously evolving characters of Coogan and Brydon. These characters change between films just as they change in real life. By the start of this movie, Brydon is settling into a comfortable middle age, complete with the joys and struggles of child rearing. He’s comfortable with the state of his career as a comedian and television personality famous in Britain. Coogan, on the other hand, has found tremendous global success, particularly with the Oscar nominated Philomena. Unlike Brydon, he’s still living a bachelor lifestyle, although he’s yearning for something more, and is constantly looking for ways to advance his career.
These characters have come a long way since the original The Trip, from six years ago. In that film, the duo was on a largely equal footing career-wise, Coogan was a happy bachelor, and Brydon was still getting accustomed to being a new father. Similar to the Before trilogy from Richard Linklater, the Trip films serve as a check-in with their characters as they journey through life. By examining these characters and their interactions over and over again through time, we can see their lives unfold in all their messy complexity. Each entry offers a new vantage point from which to view Brydon and Coogan and life as a whole.
It’s a fun vantage point too. Brydon and Coogan, as they continually try to out-do one another, make for a hilarious duo. Spending a couple of hours in their company is a true pleasure. Sure, Byrdon is obnoxious and Coogan is vain, but the mixture of those personalities is part of the charm. Brydon is continuously needling Coogan, who in turn is perpetually trying to prove his comic superiority to Brydon. In the end, though, these films would feel hollow and lifeless if it were all about two bickering men competing to be funnier. The film succeeds because it intersperses and integrates this humor with genuine moments of humanity. It explores how these two men, of similar age but vastly different mindset, navigate life. Whether that means a compassionate glance, an awkwardly timed joke, or a private moment with a mirror, over the course of this film, we start to understand that the varieties of middle aged life are just as fascinating, varied, and active as the other, more commonly explored life-stages. I walked away from The Trip to Spain wondering how I’ll see the world when I’m middle aged. Will I be obsessed with my career? Will I be content with my life? Am I a Brydon or a Coogan? I guess I have twenty years to find out.