How it’s New York: It’s a “Spotlight Narrative” entry in the Tribeca Film Festival – in New York City, of course!
How it’s Irish (and English and Welsh): Actress Claire Keelan (“Emma“) is “from Ireland by way of Liverpool.” The director, Michael Winterbottom, hails from Blackburn, Lancashire, England. Steve Coogan (“Steve“) is an English actor, stand-up comedian, impressionist, screenwriter, and producer from Middleton, Manchester, England. And Robert Brydon (“Rob“), is an MBE and Welsh actor, comedian, radio and television presenter, singer and impressionist.
Road Pictures: a genre as old as Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, as ground-breaking as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, as turned on its head as Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise, and as final (please!) as what-the-hell-my-agent-said-it’ll-be-good-for-my-career as Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, John Travolta, and William H. Macy in Wild Hogs.
In 2010, Michael Winterbottom contributed his homage to road pictures as a British television-series-turned-feature-film called [pullquote]I “squeezed the kids in” but “not doing a Mick Jagger”[/pullquote] The Trip. The premise was a paid food and travel article gig between two buddies, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, that turned into a culinary romp through Northern England. That film was so successful that Winterbottom repeated his efforts twice more: The Trip to Italy (his favorite cuisine) and, now, The Trip to Spain.
The Tribeca Film Festival (“TFF”) was created by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff in 2001 to spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan following the attacks on the World Trade Center. In Winterbottom’s “Spotlight Narrative” entry, the founders’ vision is expanded by this independent film which not only has ably morphed from TV to film, but creatively reimagines – no, raises – Road Pictures to life imitating art, with the promise of continuing significant, inspiring story lines.
It’s a hit, of course, as any film series turned into an informal cult classic might be. And this particular installment is witty (of dialogue) and also beautiful (of venue), drawing the viewer into the scenes as a participant. In one such leg of the trip, Coogan and Brydon banter about Don Quixote and take turns singing “Windmills of My Mind” to the point where a viewer might feel motivated to jump in and throw around wisecracks. When the buddies inevitably wind down to silence – as a real driver and passenger typically do – it seems as though they and this reviewer are simply staring out of the window at the dramatic scenery until the next volley of words.
In fact, this whole film felt very Merchant-Ivory meets Monty Python (although the actual physical comedy was sparse) via Woody Allen’s School of Neuroses.
During a panel discussion at the end of the showing, Winterbottom revealed that his modus operandi was to have a sort of story structure and then let the lads rip: the extended dialogues were ad-libbed (one for over an hour!) and then edited down later. This off-the-leash approach to dialogue is fun up to a point, but like any good car trip, people need some quiet occasionally. And while the convos can be witty, taken all together and at their great lengths (Where was the film editor?), Coogan and Brydon come off in this film as more teen-aged wise-asses than clever, urbane men.
[pullquote]King Ferdinand was a Catholitic converter.[/pullquote] But the ribs this rangy film are hung on are made of thin-but-strong bones, and the Don Quixote metaphor is, as usual, more in keeping with Cervantes’ original intention: two middle-aged men trying to have one last hurrah but learning big lessons. For happily married Brydon in the prime of his career, it’s a well-timed escape from his beloved but exhausting young family. (I “squeezed the kids in” but “not doing a Mick Jagger” delivered in his quite good Jagger imitation.) For habitually single Coogan…well, his writing and acting careers are taking a nosedive. And although he wags on about life [“We’re in our sweet spot.”], we realize only a little faster than Coogan that the trip has become his attempt to find new direction. And his chosen starting line, and jumping-off point for both men, is a rewind to Coogan’s Square One: Spain, the place where this self-proclaimed lothario lost his virginity 30 years before. Needless to say, time hasn’t stopped for him or Spain, and the traveling pals’ dichotomies are so polarized that only the affection and history that they share holds them together. As the men play, wisecrack [“King Ferdinand was a Catholitic converter.”] do imitations, stumble, and bumble amicably through the film, two things are clear: Brydon is well-situated in life but, despite his seemingly learned platitudes [“Do you want to drop (from the tree of life) or be picked”], Coogan is lonely and lost. In fact, it’s the hugeness of the differences in their situations that finally delivers the punch in the head that awakens Coogan. In the story’s wind-up, Coogan attempts to rectify his situation – in an unfortunate 1940s romance movie style. Of course his recklessness causes him to fall right down a rabbit hole that the Mad Hatter would have recognized.
At this point, I feel compelled to point out that this funny man demonstrated great dramatic range in Philomena with Dame Judy Dench. I would have loved to have seen Coogan’s story line deepened in Spain. In fact, I would have really loved to have seen more depth regarding EACH facet of this movie – the gorgeous scenery, the famous towns and points of interest (one of the few named was the Alhambra), and the food! How unfair, to thrust enticing platefuls of seafood under the nose of this sea-foodie without mentioning their names and places of origin. The one exception was a running joke about “life-affirming buffalo butter.” The schtick evolved into Brydon wondering if his grandmother had looked that good and Coogan assuring him that, if she had tasted as good, he’d have taken a nibble. (You had to have been there…)
The actresses in the film had a bit more presence and attention than the topography and food: the stand-outs were Claire Keelan (“Emma”), Margo Stilley (“Mischa”), and Rebecca Johnson (“Sally”). But even Dorothy Lamour had more to do in the Crosby/Hope road pix. (Spoiler alert! A word to Winterbottom: the Mischa story line is ripe in oh-so-many ways. Please use it in the next and give the actress some rein. And how involved with Coogan could Emma have been, hmmm?)
This was this reviewer’s very first experience on the red carpet. And during the ensuing panel discussion featuring Winterbottom and the two main actresses, charming and dynamic Claire Keelan and sultry, fresh American Margo Stilley, the experience surprised this reporter by its chatty, informal nature. Listening to fun, over-the-top experiences of the actors, sensing the deep respect-approaching-awe of the present company for Coogan and Brydon, and hearing the admission that Stilley had only seen the movie for the first time with the rest of us added to the feeling that we were co-conspirators in their merry enterprise.
But where were the lads? Sadly, nowheres about. We’ll have to wait to match silliness with them another day, it being very obvious that their alleged last hurrah is only another installment until – could it be true?! – a rumored sequel in Ireland! (Winterbottom denied it…too quickly…)