Two complicated characters exploring and debating their flaws in long conversations amid lovely European backgrounds. It doesn’t sound like the basis for a movie franchise, but it works. Richard Linklater turned the premise into a 15-year trilogy with his “Before” films, following Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy across the rocky shores of fleeting romance, reconnection and buyer’s remorse. “The Trip to Spain,” the third in director Michael Winterbottom’s travel, feast and squabble series, holds a similar focus on the bickering bromance between British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Provided you’re a fan of subdued dry wit, bittersweet views of males in middle age and wicked celebrity impressions, it’s a perceptive trip you’ll want to take.
Coogan and Brydon imitate themselves in these films, playing moderately fictionalized representations of who they are in real life. Which makes a focus of this installment the fact that they are almost a decade older than when the series began. Brydon is a doting new father in midlife, Coogan an aging womanizer and incurably lonely bachelor. They are gleefully funny and melancholy at the same time.
“Fifty is in many ways the best age. It’s the sweet spot,” Brydon says. “You’ve still got time.”
“We’re ripe fruit,” says Coogan. Which sounds good until he adds, “If you hang on the branch any longer you’re going to wither and die.”
“Do you want to drop, or do you want to be plucked?” Brydon asks.
“I want to be plucked, actually,” Coogan replies.
“But who’s going to pluck you at your age?”
As they travel around stunning Spanish locales to write newspaper travel stories about the culture and cuisine, Coogan is the Quixote figure, addicted to impossible dreams of career and personal success, a bit arrogant despite having minimal self-esteem. Brydon is his squire, all common sense, domestic pragmatism and skill in playing foil to Coogan’s follies.
It’s the same shtick they played while exploring England in 2010’s “The Trip” and regional delicacies in 2014’s “The Trip to Italy.” They engage in passive-aggressive sparring, each trying to have the last word and the best mimicry of whatever star they decide to parrot. Here we have Coogan playing Coogan playing Mick Jagger and Brydon playing Brydon playing Roger Moore.
Winterbottom’s direction adds several layers of put-on atop that. Brydon adores his 2-year-old son and his wife, but really does need a couple of weeks not hearing nonstop wailing, which is mostly why he agreed to the latest voyage at Coogan’s side. Coogan has two Oscar nominations — if you had forgotten that, he’ll remind you — but is anxious about his agent moving to a new job at a better firm without carrying him along. And his relationships with his 20-year-old son and married girlfriend in New York are not improving.
Wonderfully specific dream sequences delve into their subconscious efforts to deal with life’s harsh travails, chimeras connecting to the story with such surgical precision that you wonder how much of what we witness is real and how much is REM sleep visions. It’s a mystery that follows right up to the surreal, entirely unexpected finale, which suggests that it was all a … well, you decide.
“The Trip to Spain” is a film for an elite few, rather than mass audiences, but if you’re open to it, this is the stuff that dreams are made of.