Dry charm goes stale in ‘The Trip to Spain’

Rory Mulvey/IFC Films/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.0 / 5.0

Put two impressionists together at a dinner table, and it’s more than likely that they’re going to do bits the entire time. Comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have woven that concept into a rather successful film trilogy, beginning in 2010. It’s unexpectedly become the “Back to the Future” of British comedy films. But much like the classic time-traveling series, “The Trip” films have lessened in quality with each sequel.

In this third installment, “The Trip to Spain,” a fictionalized Steve Coogan and his fictionalized friend Rob Brydon have been commissioned once again to take a food tour across a country — sharing dry, characteristically British banter along the way. This time, we’re in Spain. It’s the same formula followed to a T in the first two films, “The Trip” and 2014’s “The Trip to Italy.”

Although there’s something comforting in sameness and the familiarity of sequels, narrative repetition only works if the final product is fresh each time. Three films in, “The Trip to Spain” feels stale, plagued by overwrought impressions and jokes, some that are practically retold word for word. All that’s changed is the meals.

Somehow “The Trip to Spain” boasts a shorter running time than the first two installments, yet overextended comedy bits and sluggish pacing drag out the journey. Plus, it features what seems to be about 12 cumulative minutes of the Spanish countryside, including a gratuitous montage of Steve running through sweeping fields and cobblestone streets to work off sad thoughts. It’s as if halfway through editing “The Trip to Spain,” director Michael Winterbottom and his editors realized that the lack of a plot necessitated the use of more b-roll footage.

Speaking of sad, running Steve, he is the only one to have stepped up his game this time around.

After straying from his family man values in Italy during the last “Trip,” Rob is back to being an outwardly happy, if truly suffering, father and husband. Meanwhile, Steve’s onscreen career is spiraling, and a case of unrequited love has only intensified his depressive state. In embracing Steve’s inner turmoil, Coogan gives his best performance of the trilogy. One moment Steve is biting and short-tempered, the next he’s using a Michael Caine impression to tease Rob. His oscillation between despairing thoughtfulness and sharp comedic improvisation at last feels crafted in some moments and not like incessant, mindless banter.

Through Coogan’s subtle performance, we see the use of comedy as a means to push through personal troubles, as it too often does. The slight adjustment also alters the dynamic of Steve and Rob’s table banter, the stylistic core of the “Trip” series. Rob adopts humor as a way to make the trip more enjoyable, hopefully pulling Steve out of his rut. The result is akin to watching a man trying to cheer up his bummed best friend, and it is much more entertaining fare than two guys merely trying to out-funny each other.

While “The Trip to Spain” at first maintains a low simmer between the best friends, the film’s action finally rises a bit past the film’s halfway point, as Steve’s irritation with Rob almost boils over. As they dine with friends, Rob drags out a Roger Moore impression, interrupting Steve as he attempts to move on to a separate conversation. It’s the first moment in the film that doesn’t feel like a gimmicky carryover from the previous two trips — for Steve, and for us, the bit is no longer funny.

Narratively, the tense scene is the film’s highlight. Steve and Rob’s unspoken clash puts both the flaws and strength of their friendship on display. Cinematically, the scene reveals outright what’s wrong with the third “Trip” film: More of the same isn’t always a fun time.

We also realize how annoying it might be to actually go to dinner with guys who do competing impressions of every James Bond throughout three international excursions. Even if the comedic dinner talk in Spain is infused with more insight into a friendship, some jokes just get old after a while.

Contact Danielle Gutierrez at [email protected].