Forty years ago the Best Song Oscar took a catastrophic turn—“You Light Up My Life” was the 1977 victor—and the category has never really been the same. Tepid pop songs and the occasional Disney original tend to scoop up the award, albeit with notable exceptions. But before that year, the list of Oscar Best Songs is littered with classics, none more haunting than 1968’s “The Windmills of Your Mind.” With its mournful melody and existentially despairing lyrics, the song is an inducement to sit in a hole and cover yourself with nice cold earth.
So there’s something perfect about the fact that two of Britain’s top comedic talents adopt “Windmills” as their traveling theme song in The Trip to Spain. The film’s predecessors, The Trip and The Trip to Italy, have neatly balanced big laughs with an unexpected current of melancholy. Something as upbeat as “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” (Oscar winner 1947) would never have done for these guys. Besides, “Windmills” ties into the location for this outing. Spain brings associations of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, which the movie duly acknowledges. But here, as before in this series, the tilting at windmills takes the shape of men dueling with each other and the monster of the ego.
The comedians are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, returning to their roles as variations on themselves. As before, they have been assigned to produce restaurant reviews, this time at a variety of high-end Spanish eateries. As they drive around the countryside, they occasionally notice the scenery while one-upping each other with celebrity impersonations and career accomplishments. The vainglorious Coogan is basking in the glow of the Oscar nominations he garnered for Philomena, while the more down-to-earth Brydon considers the possibility of moving to Hollywood, a gamble that might bag him a profitable sitcom but would damage his family life. The plot is fictional—a wife and girlfriend depicted here are actresses—yet in an odd way the Trip series documents aging and evolution as shrewdly as the process of Michael Apted’s Up documentaries (which check in with a group of British people every seven years). The difference is Coogan and Brydon are swaddled in showbiz behavior, two inveterate gagsters whose lifeblood is shtick.
The Trip to Italy struck the trilogy’s most intriguing notes of midlife reassessment; Spain opts for being funnier, and might be the series’ most frequently hilarious installment. I understand that humor is a judgment call, so if you can’t handle one more set of Michael Caine impressions, well, so be it. But the addition of Mick Jagger and David Bowie impersonations is glorious, and both tie in to amusing Brydon anecdotes.
This film contains the acid-test sequence, I think, for the humor of the series. As Coogan and a friend describe the influence of Moorish culture on the Iberian peninsula, Brydon cannot help riffing that other influential Moore, Roger. (This film was shot before the recent death of that most genteel James Bond actor.) Much to Coogan’s annoyance, Brydon will not, perhaps cannot, stop—the jokes are so tempting and his imitation so spot-on. I don’t doubt there are audience members who will share that irritation, but that the movie lets Brydon babble on is a measure of its integrity. This is comedy as obsession, as primal energy, as lifeline against the chaos of the real world. These guys crack jokes as though their lives depend on it, which maybe they do.
Spain also adds a slightly surreal variation on the formula, especially in the final minutes, when the movie extends past the end of the restaurant tour and builds to a final sequence that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road picture. (That’s a compliment.) It is bizarre, it raises the stakes to global proportions, and it sets up another sequel that could be something entirely new if Coogan, Brydon, and director Michael Winterbottom dare go down that road. The Trip to Spain, Not rated. Opens Fri., Sept. 1 at SIFF Uptown.