In the new film The Trip to Spain, the British actor/comedian Steve Coogan carries a book as he travels from Cantabria to Andalusia, on assignment reviewing restaurants for the New York Times. The book is Laurie Lee’s chronicle of traveling Spain in the 1930s, just before the fascists overthrew the government and triggered civil war. The film, the third in The Trip franchise, resumes a less consequential contest: between Coogan and Rob Brydon (another British comic), regarding who does the better impressions of more distinctive, more memorable men — Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Mick Jagger and countless others — while eating fancy meals.
These impersonations, along with gorgeous images of cuisine and countryside, might be pleasing enough to justify three Trips. But director Michael Winterbottom and the actor-writers Coogan and Brydon also want to get at something deeper — ambition, aging, and mortality. The films’ secret profundity is the revelation that in fact, there is nothing there beneath the surface. One of the adulthood’s most painful responsibilities is paying for a restaurant meal, and engaging in actual conversation that befits the occasion with the person across from you. The film’s protagonists are off the hook in both cases, thanks to their expense account and obsession with imitation.
After his trip to Spain, as it slipped toward war, Laurie Lee wrote “all civilizations at some time have fallen into this total terror, when the mystery of life was a kind of panic only to be assuaged by the spilling of blood.” The Trip to Spain suggests that, as our civilization faces its own decline and panic and terror, our dearest comfort is in the spilling forth of a creamy yolk, a rich broth, or slurped wine. The films seem to confirm that the best life we could hope for is to travel in luxury and eat well on the corporate dime (occasionally making passes at the women hired to serve you). In the face of our own creeping fascism, to be coddled, kept, and amused remains both our greatest fantasy and busiest preoccupation.
In between bites and impersonations, Coogan and Brydon manage some conversation. Their chatter reveals what they most deeply admire — writers who fight: Lord Byron and Cervantes (both fought the Ottomans, centuries apart), Orwell and Lee (the fascists, at the same time). But Steve and Rob barely write and fight for nothing. They are just actors who eat, fuck, and (over the course of three films) age. And for the audiences of today that seems to be enough. The most important, of course, is the eating — and some critics wish they could simply gaze at the food without hearing the comedians’ voices.
One hears quite a din of voices as you gaze upon your meal at Tipo, a new restaurant here in Portland whose southern-Europe small plates approximate the meals from the two most recent Trip films, shot in Italy and Spain. Getting out to Ocean Avenue on the opposite side of the back bay is hardly a drive through the Spanish countryside, but it does feel like a haul. The restaurant’s boxy space is a bit austere, but they pack the tables in which creates warmth. Tipo also has a nice outdoor patio, a bit like the ones Coogan and Brydon frequent in Spain, where their meals are notably less stuffy than in the earlier films.
A meal at Tipo isn’t stuffy either. Though parts of the menu have a rarified air, the atmosphere is pretty casual, and some customers chomp on pizza. Tipo is run by the same people as the Old Port’s celebrated Central Provisions. But it is not some kind of back-bay Peripheral Provisions, doing an inferior impersonation of Central, like Coogan doing Caine. It is a different animal with a few traits in common. It is much easier to park.
A special of grilled sardines featured two big beauties much like a pair Brydon consumes happily in the film. At Tipo the fish’s rich, oily flesh was nicely grilled, while a green relish on top was a touch too vinegar-sour. A ceviche of sea-bass had a citrus-sweet almost Vietnamese quality, brightly colored and flavored. Along with big pieces of tender fish, slices of radish and green herbs added some earthiness.
Thanks to their heavy breading and small size, a dish of fried artichokes made a decidedly unpretentious, almost fair-food first impression. But the minty aioli added an interesting tang, and the tomato-caper tapenade had been super-reduced to acquire a great jamminess.
A pair of ragùs offered different virtues. In one case dark mushrooms had been cooked to a delicious earthy tenderness. They mixed with creamy yolk on a square pillow of creamy and fluffy polenta. A pork raguhad a pleasantly slow-developing roasted pepper heat, that emerged as you chewed the tough little cavetelli made from rye flour.
So Tipo is a pleasant sequel to Central Provisions. Central is more refined, but also a bit too (seeming to encourage Old Port-style overindulgence). In The Trip to Spain,Coogan is self-satisfied too — basking in the success of his 2013 film Philomena, which got him nominations for several Oscars (best picture, best screenplay) — but has given up drinking, and refuses wine throughout the trip. He is even writing his food reviews for a better paper (the New York Times; not The Observer).
But it is remarkable how little Coogan has changed, even as his career has gained in prestige. In fact, Philomena resembles a fourth Trip film — one in which Coogan imagines what it might be like to do something useful — and with Dame Judy Dench (passably impersonating a working-class woman) instead of Rob Brydon. Philomena suggests all it takes to find something meaningful to say and do is to stumble onto a poor woman whose baby was stolen by evil nuns. The film is structured exactly like The Trips — all driving and awkward meals on a newspaper’s expense account — but in Philomena, Coogan shuts up and listens with a concerned look on his face.
His rare look of concern in The Trip to Spain also centers on a stolen baby: Coogan’s girlfriend, married to another man, has gotten pregnant and Coogan is not the father. Coogan offers to raise the child anyway and is refused — another pale reflection of Laurie Lee, whose daughter with Lorna Wishart was raised by Lorna’s husband. Meanwhile, Coogan’s son, a victim of Coogan’s passive paternal failures in previous films, has impregnated his own teenage girlfriend — assuming the role of father that Coogan could never fulfill.
Is the film reinforcing or undermining the lazy profundity that the way to give meaning to life is to create some more? As the men arrive in La Mancha and order the scallops, Cervantes replaces Lee as their foremost literary obsession. “Hunger is the best sauce in the world, and the poor eat with relish,” Cervantes had Teresa remind Sancho Panza, begging him to give up his roaming quest for wealth and notoriety. But one gets no sense that existential hunger is helping Brydon and Coogan appreciate these trips, these meals or their fame.
Cervantes fought the Ottomans, and spent five years enslaved in Algiers. He also made the implied narrator of Quixote’s story a Muslim. The Trip to Spain culminates in an interminable scene where Coogan attempts to lecture two women on the history of the Moors in Spain, while Brydon loudly comments in the voice of Roger Moore. The jokes win out over earnest didacticism, as usual.
Brydon, the film’s Sancho, returns to his wife and children. Coogan, dejected, crosses the water to Africa to do some writing. His Land Rover breaks down, and in the film’s final scene a Toyota HiLux full of ISIS soldiers stumble upon him. His concerned look returns. Could a Cervantes style adventure do what free meals and a down-scale Judy Dench could not — make a real writer and man of him? Perhaps The Trip to Syria could offer an answer.
The Trip to Spain | Dir: Michael Winterbottom | Playing at the Nickelodeon, 25 Temple St., Portland | http://patriotcinemas.com/
Tipo | 182 Ocean Ave., Portland | Wed–Sun 4pm-10pm; Sat–Sunday 10am-2pm | 207-358-7970 | http://www.tiporestaurant.com/