The Trip to Spain, the latest of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's travelogue films, is a rather perfect mélange of casual wealth porn, a glimpse into competitive friendships, and the clash between the masculine imperatives to settle down and start a family and to achieve professional greatness while racking up personal conquests.
The Trip was originally broadcast as a six-episode BBC comedy following Coogan and Brydon as they traveled the British countryside, writing about the restaurants they encountered. The 2010 film version of The Trip boiled the series down to its essence: a portrait of male friendship and all the various little rivalries such relationships often imply. The enduring moment from that film is the scene in which the two offer competing Michael Caine impressions, explaining their thought process while also slagging the other's efforts.
That semi-viral bit of humor sometimes seems to loom over the rest of the series. There's a brief Michael Caine reprise in The Trip to Italy and, again, in The Trip to Spain. In the most recent film, Caine is used as a way into the pair's competing versions of Mick Jagger. You'd think it would get a bit old hearing these two comics mimic the speech patterns of celebrities, but the impressions themselves are not the main attraction here. What's more interesting is the rivalry between the two, the little bits of info or trivia they drop as they are trying to one-up each other on the way to crafting the perfect impression. Brydon does Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition bit in the voice of Marlon Brando, Coogan breaks out his De Niro, which Brydon says sounds like Brando, and Coogan responds by saying that De Niro modeled his work on Brando so, in reality, this supposed critique is actually a compliment of Coogan's skills.
It's quite fun and amusing and, honestly, a realistic reflection of the way male bonding works. You often see it when two guys are talking about the same subject. Doesn't really matter the topic—politics, sports, pop culture, whatever. They'll each casually introduce little bits of trivia ("Well, sure, Mike Trout's WAR is pretty great, but I bet you don't know about what this obscure second basemen did in 1957…") in an effort to establish conversational dominance. Such efforts can sometimes seem overly aggressive or mean spirited to the outsider, but it's clear from Coogan and Brydon's friendship that no harm is intended, no slight perceived by either side. Indeed, the only time offense is taken is when an outsider makes his own suggestions, one-upping Coogan on the matter of Spanish cuisine. We're all happy to take grief from our friends; strangers don't get the same leeway.
Coogan's tongue is often the sharper-edged in these little skirmishes, a reflection of his professional striving and his persistent unhappiness. He was nominated for two Oscars for his work on Philomena, yet wakes up to nightmares about not winning best screenplay at the 2014 awards. He's had huge success, but feels hurt and snubbed when his agent leaves his agency and doesn't ask Coogan to join him—as he asked Ricky Gervais. He seems upset and unsettled no matter how many scripts he sells or accolades he earns, in part because his home life is, shall we say, unsatisfactory. He has no one to come home to.
Compare that to Brydon's life: married, two kids, decent career. (Plus, David Bowie followed him on Twitter.) Sure, Rob is happy to jet off when Coogan calls to invite him on this, their third Trip—we see him eye his two yelling kids when Coogan rings, practically muttering a prayer of thanks that his mate is rescuing him from the din—but he's equally happy to be home at the end of the week, back in the arms of his wife. Everyone thinks they want to live like Coogan, moving from conquest to conquest, but there's something to be said for a nice, consistent life at home.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a series of first world problems, given that The Trip to Spain, like The Trip to Italy and The Trip before, is essentially an extended experience of low-key wealth porn—a thinking man's Entourage, in a way. The two stay at castles when they aren't eating at Michelin-starred restaurants or crossing the sea in first class ferry cabins or tooling about the Spanish countryside in Coogan's Range Rover (not, Coogan points out, a Land Rover). But such a dismissal would be wrong. Like all great art, The Trip to Spain takes a specific experience and uses it to express something universal by examining the hopes, dreams, and desires of Coogan and Brydon. And, in so doing, highlights the eternal tension between desiring something great and settling for something good.