Unless it becomes formulaic, a formula can be a good thing. Just ask Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, the British comic actors who star in the three “Trip” movies, and Michael Winterbottom, who directed them.
The formula? Playing versions of themselves, Coogan (“Philomena”) and Brydon (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) drive through some extremely gogglesome locales: England’s Lake District and Yorkshire (“The Trip,” 2011); Tuscany, Rome, and the Amalfi coast (“The Trip to Italy,” 2014);and now, in “The Trip to Spain,” Santander, Málaga, and points between. They eat fabulous meals (the premise for each trip is that one or both of them has been assigned to write dining reviews). When Rob refers here to one restaurant’s “life-affirming butter,” he’s not kidding.
There’s some literary connection. Here it’s the English writer Laurie Lee (Steve claims to be writing a book inspired by one of Lee’s) and Miguel de Cervantes. Windmills, of a sort, are tilted at, and anyone who’s seen either of the previous movies knows which of the two is Don Quixote and which Sancho Panza.
The proof that the “Trip” formula hasn’t become formulaic? How often, and hard, these two can make an audience laugh. The laughter comes from the movies’ most important recurring element: the way Steve and Rob interact. Their bickering and frequent one-upmanship are less like sibling rivalry or masculine competition and more like a rocky marriage: thin-skinned affection wedded to well-earned wariness. Steve and Rob are a pair of Beckett characters who’ve stumbled into paradise then barely look up, they enjoy stumbling so much.
The one-upmanship most memorably takes the form of dueling imitations. Mimicry comes as easily to Steve and Rob (who’s better at it, but don’t tell Steve) as expense-accounting meals does. They do old standbys Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Woody Allen, Humphrey Bogart, Anthony Hopkins, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Roger Moore. Rob imagines him as one of the rulers of medieval Spain. Yes, that’s right, the Moors.
Additions to the menagerie include Mick Jagger and Mick Jagger doing Michael Caine. That one requires an explanation. Explaining is an even more important “Trip” activity than driving and eating. We also get David Bowie, Paul McCartney, John Hurt, Ian McKellen (who takes best-in-show honors), and the Tijuana Brass. That one leads to a discussion of the relative merits of “Herb Alpert” and “Herb Albert” and “Spanish Flea” and “Spanish Fly.”
Prone to melancholy, Steve seems most content when scowling. Every time he points out that he’s a two-time Oscar nominee (for “Philomena”), the gloom deepens — and gets funnier. Aging remains much on his mind, and his attempts at self-reassurance aren’t especially reassuring. “We’re at the sweet spot in our lives,” he declares to Rob, “our prime.” Pause. “I should play Miss Jean Brodie.” That cackling sound you hear is coming from the general direction of Maggie Smith.
Rob, who looks like a reality-TV version of Hugh Grant, stays cheerful throughout and lets Steve do the driving — both figurative and literal. When they reenact Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch — as if they could resist — you know who plays inquisitor and who plays inquisitee.
★ ★ ★
THE TRIP TO SPAIN
Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon. At Kendall Square. 108 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13, rare casual obscenity).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.