The comic duel of egos, unabated and envenomed, that has formed the Steve Coogan/Rob Brydon Trip movies has changed over the years.
It began in 2010 with The Trip, in which the duo traveled to the finest restaurants in the British countryside. In 2014, they did the same in The Trip to Italy.
Now, there is not so much venom, and although they still cross swords, affection carries the day as they play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves traveling Europe, dining, sightseeing, and comparing the size of their careers.
As they pile into to Coogan's Range Rover for their Trip to Spain, the camera shows us that Brydon has a bald spot, and we know that Coogan is certain to mention it.
Coogan teases Brydon about his hair, Brydon teases Coogan about his vanity. Coogan teases Brydon about feet, Brydon teases Coogan about his vanity, and so forth.
Coogan's self-regard is under assault as never before — things in his life are "not ideal," as he acknowledges, with British understatement. His latest girlfriend is cool to him, so is his agent, and Hollywood wants a younger screenwriter to "polish" his latest script. More horrors await.
Coogan is even getting diminished pleasure from telling everyone in Spain, especially the young women, that he earned an Oscar nomination for his script for Philomena. The country is full of religious relics, and its history is deeply intertwined with that of the Catholic Church, so opportunities for him to mention it are many.
As usual, the two men dine fabulously, and director Michael Winterbottom plops them down in beautiful places, in beautiful light (often photographing them at dawn or at dusk, which must have taken some doing).
Some have found this third go-round tiresome — and apparently there are more to come. Not me. The movies may be frivolous (and stitched together from British TV shows), but they are unique — they have an astute understanding of mature male friendship that is rare, even in a male-dominated industry (the last good, comparable example I can think of was Sideways).
And even the series' most famous element — the way Coogan and Brydon one-up each other by mimicking actors and celebrities — has taken on new dimension here. Impersonations of David Bowie and Roger Moore also serve as eulogies, amid other signs that the men are ever more keenly aware of their mortality.
This adds poignance to their relentless commitment to the next put-down or joke. A bit that has Brydon refusing to abandon his Moore schtick during a discussion of the Spanish Moors goes from funny to excruciating and back to funny.
All of this comes together at the movie's much-talked-about ending that strikes some as out of the blue. In fact, the groundwork has been carefully laid, and the butt of the joke, as usual, is Coogan, whose boast of being a fearless idealist and latter-day George Orwell looks as though it will be put to the test.