Not every movie needs a plot.

Many films provide real entertainment without telling reel stories. They compensate for a lack of narrative by showcasing the depth of characters and the details of relationships. Think, for a moment, of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Molly Ringwald and Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club. What mattered was how the people could relate, not the plot points they pursued.

Not much happens in the new film, The Trip to Spain, a continuation of a semi-fictional series of conversations between friends Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Prompted by an offer to work on a book about food and travel, the buddies embark on a driving trip through the Spanish countryside, stopping at lovely inns to devour elaborate meals, imagining themselves as Don Quixote and sidekick Sancho, and trying to traverse the ups and downs of reaching middle age. That’s about all that happens. Coogan and Brydon talk, eat, question, reflect and reveal their concerns about growing older, without ever letting each other or themselves see too deeply into their fears.

If this set up sounds a bit slight, give the friends and their film a chance. Coogan and Brydon fill the piece with a lot of fun, much of it improvised, to entertain as they pontificate, surprise as they question, enlighten as they delight. Yes, these men have achieved success in their professions, Brydon as an in-demand actor in Great Britain and Coogan as a two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter and actor, a fact he brings up at every opportunity. Among the light elements in the film are, actually, the less than subtle ways Coogan reminds everyone of the success of his film Philomena. He manages to work that into many a conversation.

Fortunately, the film reaches beyond the temptation to listen to itself. And it’s more than a conceit of friends chatting in front of a camera. Coogan and Brydon, along with director Michael Winterbottom, actually have something to say about how friends can support each other through the years. While these men may tease and kid, they sincerely care, and do watch out for each other when, during the film, each faces personal and professional challenge. While the men may lace their caring with layers of humor, they do, truly, watch out for each other. And we’re taken with the depth of their friendship as well as the timing of their comedy.

And the comedy is fun. Brydon, especially, brings a rich command of impersonation to the proceedings to dress up many a chat, including humorous takes on Marlon Brando and Roger Moore. Coogan brings a self-reflective sense of humor to his deeper considerations of how to manage an unconventional romance, parent a distant child, and address a range of professional disappointments. Together, they teach us that, no matter the destination or how lavish the accommodations, the times friends spend together can be rich at any time and place. The Trip to Spain celebrates the intersections people share when they open their lives to others. And there are few narratives as meaningful. Even in films without much plot.

Film Nutritional Value: The Trip to Spain

  • Content: High. This thoughtful look at the trip friends take through Spain shows us more about the people savoring their time together than the places they may visit.
  • Entertainment: High. Because Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan are such masters of the moment and the nuance, the film entertains as it makes us think about our own friendships.
  • Message: Medium. As minimal as the film’s narrative may be – in fact, it’s really about nothing – it reveals a good deal about the challenges we all face as we age.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to share a meaningful story of friendship can be a special time at the movies.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie offers a meaningful opportunity to discuss issues of life and loyalty and friendship with your older children. And share some laughs, too.

(The Trip to Spain, running 110 minutes, is not rated, and contains some profanity. Four Popcorn Buckets. It is showing in area theaters and on demand. Read more about Steve Coogan, and his film Philomena, in The Reel Dad in Arts and Leisure below.)

Steve Coogan explores a mother’s love in Philomena

by Mark Schumann

The Reel Dad

Some years, the race for the Oscar for Best Picture features a surprise entry that quietly sneaks into contention while big-name movies capture the hype.

Back in 2013, Philomena surprised everyone at the Oscars. Co-written by Steve Coogan of The Trip to Spain, this special film about a mother’s love for the child she lost long ago offered content so touching and an approach so thoughtful to make its listing as a Best Picture nominee well deserved. Oscar voters found room in a crowded movie year to honor a quiet film that dared to share such a human story.

As a woman who recalls her younger years with regret, Judi Dench reminds us what a powerful actress she can be when the material inspires her passion. That’s not to say that playing ‘M’ in the James Bond films was movie sleepwalking, but there’s much more to Dench than any franchise film can demand. Not since her riveting work as a teacher in Notes on a Scandal in 2006 has Dench had a role that equals her potential. In Philomena, she makes us believe in the quiet desperation of a mother who simply wants to know if, over the years, the son she lost ever thought of her. She can live with her regrets as long as she knows she may have played a role in his life.

In the mid-1950s in Ireland, Philomena is a teenaged single mother living in a convent where she works long hours and cherishes the moments she gets to spend with her young son. What she doesn’t know, at first, is that the convent offers its children up for adoption without a mother’s consent. Philomena is horrified to see her son taken away by a couple from America who travels overseas to become parents. No matter her devastation, though, she has no voice in this transaction. Philomena merely had the child; the convent resolves her shame by finding the baby a home.

Years later, Philomena still lives the wounds of that moment. She wonders, as any parent would, what happened to her son, who he became, how he lived, if he knew his Irish roots. A former journalist hears her story, arranges a writing assignment, and convinces Philomena to let him describe her journey to explore her son’s life. As they search, they become unlikely adventurers to explore a boy’s life and a mother’s love.

Working with the facts from the real Philomena’s life, screenwriters Coogan and Jeff Pope carefully avoid the histrionic temptations that lesser hands may have followed. As beautifully played by Dench, Philomena is a practical woman who refuses to wallow in sadness. She will not feel like a victim. But a mother’s love runs deep and, no matter how she tries to acknowledge her realities, Dench reveals the wounds that do not easily heal. As parents, we simply need our children to be in our lives.

Director Stephen Frears, of The Queen and Dangerous Liaisons, keeps the film so visually interesting that we never feel trapped by its sentimentality. He wisely focuses his camera on the relationship between Philomena and her traveling journalist as much as on her disappointments. We get to know this woman because Frears doesn’t work too hard to reveal how she thinks and feels. With Dench in command, the director lets us discover what drives this mother’s love. We get to know Philomena and wish we could spend more time with her.

How reassuring that, in the midst of all the Oscar hype, a small film with purpose could grab a slot on the Best Picture ballot.

(Philomena is rated PG-13 for “some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references” and runs 98 minutes. It is available online and on DVD.)