A few months ago, I finally broke the agonizing news to my three-year-old son: “No, we can’t go see dinosaurs at the zoo. They’re all dead.”
That came out a bit harsher than I intended; he loved these creatures after all. “I mean, they’re extinct,” I fumbled. It took a couple tries before he understood. He’s young and innocent—the idea of death or extinction feels otherworldly, even inhuman, to him.
These characters long to be validated—to be seen. Might the Christian story, or at least religion, hold an answer? The Christian God is, after all, both infinite and yet intimate. A God who acknowledges our individual human existence, despite the accompanying mediocrity or finiteness.I thought about this conversation during an important scene in Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Trip to Spain, the third installment of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan’s fictional “foodie” trilogy (following 2010’s The Trip and 2014’s The Trip to Italy). While traversing the Iberian Peninsula for a restaurant review piece, Brydon and Coogan—playing exaggerated versions of their real-life selves—stopover at a dinosaur park. As the duo strolls among the over-sized, artificial giants, their personal anxieties materialize on screen. Facing late-adulthood and professional uncertainty, both Brydon and Coogan fear they too are marching toward their own individual Ice Age. Have they passed their prime? If not, how much longer do they have left? Have they achieved enough notoriety to be remembered?
Edited down from a British TV mini-series (like its predecessors), The Trip to Spain delivers all the toppings we’ve come to expect from Winterbottom’s series. Specifically, most of the film takes place across a delicious spread, with Brydon and Coogan attempting to one-up each other with their best celebrity impressions. Like an enjoyable meal at a swanky restaurant, The Trip to Spain doesn’t rush the audience through its entrees. This is much more about savoring the characters’ rapport than simply getting us in and out the narrative door. Some of the impressions (Robert De Niro) serve as quick appetizers while others (Mick Jagger), the main course. Then there’s dessert, which can’t be anything other than Coogan and Brydon’s infamous take on Michael Caine. One thing is certain; if the Spanish cuisine doesn’t split our sides, the laughing will.
But it’s more than these new comic dishes that make The Trip to Spain the most engrossing and emotionally fulfilling film of the series. More so than the previous two adventures, The Trip to Spain succeeds through its ability to hold several seemingly contradictory qualities in tandem. The film feels both improvised and expertly planned; funny, yet fully serious.
Winterbottom’s visual style captures this simultaneously fluid and strict approach. As Brydon and Coogan savor each meal, there’s an in-the-moment, improvisational flow to their conversations—both in performance and frame. Like the shots of grills and frying pans that punctuate the restaurant scenes, their banter crackles with the sparks of spontaneity, freedom, and vibrancy.
Alternatively, as Brydon and Coogan traverse the Spanish landscape, Winterbottom fills the screen with expansive, wide angles that communicate the smallness of his characters. A Range Rover filled with comedic exchanges suddenly becomes a moving matchbox among rolling hills and lush greenery. At the dinosaur park, the creatures hang over the characters’ heads as both a warning and a sign. In one scene, the two stroll through a sprawling cathedral; the structure nearly engulfing their figures. The film’s intimate, dialogue-driven scenes are crisscrossed with these three elements: historical, physical, and spiritual smallness. Isn’t this the bane of human existence? Time, space, and history wait for no one. And yet, it’s our relationships that connect us to the fabric of human experience.
These cues illustrate the other landmark Brydon and Coogan visit—the trappings of middle-age. The two are comfortable mimicking celebrities at will, but they aren’t so confident in the person buried beneath their own skin. While Coogan still frolics in the success of his 2014 project Philomena (a nice touch that further blurs the line between the real and fictional person), his dreams relive the film’s Academy Award loss to another “Steve”—12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen. Brydon, conversely, quietly wonders if his past comedy bits like the fabled “Small Man Trapped in a Box” gag were the high-tide of his career. His options are limited because he’s chosen to stay close to his two small children, but even this decision can be reversed. Significance, faithfulness, and contentment may not be mutually exclusive, but they sure do seem that way.
Brydon and Coogan’s unanswered questions are universal, and even I, someone much younger than they, feel their force, too. I’m in the process of launching a business and publishing a book, and my mind often wonders what success and failure in these endeavors even looks like. In a world obsessed with recognition—even more so in our age of social media—when, if ever, will I “arrive”? The greatest failure in our age is not immorality, but—it seems—celebrity mortality. Mediocrity is reviled.
“It is an embarrassment now to be merely faithful and not successful,” Timothy Keller writes in his book Making Sense of God. “Our culture tells us that we have the power to create ourselves, and that puts the emphasis on independence and self-reliance. But it also means that society adulates winners and despises losers, showing contempt for weakness.” It’s exactly this burden of personal significance that Brydon and Coogan carry with them, both on their trip and at home.
It that sense, The Trip to Spain’s themes resonate with those of another acclaimed film from this year—David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. The indie drama follows a near-nameless character (played by Casey Affleck) as he haunts his Texas ranch home upon death. As time passes, residents come and go, paying his memory no heed. Eventually, his ghostly entity traces across history, all while thinking of the memories he shared with his beloved bride. A Ghost Story seems to make one point clear: in the grand scale of life, individual humans are seemingly insignificant. We die and are forgotten. But to those who hold us dear, we are the world.
This same hulking truth provides a rich subtext for The Trip to Spain. In one nightmare sequence, Coogan visualizes himself in the Spanish Inquisition. Flung into a darkened room, he’s asked to prove his faith. He can’t.
It’s not surprising that the film would offer this metaphysical detour. While scenes like Coogan’s hallucination hardly point to a full-fledged theology, they do invite us to ponder the nature of this world, as well as the next. These characters long to be validated—to be seen. Might the Christian story, or at least religion, hold an answer? The Christian God is, after all, both infinite and yet intimate. A God who acknowledges our individual human existence, despite the accompanying mediocrity or finiteness. We all go the way of the dinosaur. How might faith affect our approach to those lumbering beasts of old?
In that sense, you could say The Trip to Spain’s main concern is death. Or at least the question of what death brings. And when we reach the film’s brilliant, heartbreaking, and darkly humorous finale, we are pushed to wonder whether “the trip” has a destination. Or if it’s an end in itself.