First there was “The Trip,” a six-part, three-hour BBC TV series with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon ... or at least fairly close versions of themselves. The show presented them as friends or, more accurately, close acquaintances who, between acting jobs, got a writing assignment to drive through the north of England, hop from hotel to hotel, and eat lunches in fancy restaurants, then report on the experiences. The charm of the whole thing was captured in their conversations, most involving history and pop culture and any topic imaginable practically in between. The charm of that charm was in full flower when the discussions started including impersonations of celebrities - Michael Caine and Sean Connery among them - and an ever-spiraling sense of competition between the two guys over who could do the better one.
It was a wonderfully entertaining and meandering series of half-hour shows which were eventually edited into the feature film “The Trip.” Which begat the series and the movies “The trip to Italy” and “The Trip to Spain,” and has now resulted in the fourth and supposedly final installment, “The Trip to Greece.” More driving, hotels, restaurants, conversation and imitations.
But the shows and films haven’t been just a lot of goofiness. In and around all of the talking, viewers have been treated to two spot-on improvisors - and gifted imitators - who are operating with all pistons firing, and are regularly and successfully trying to crack each other up. But there’s much more, and credit goes to the creator and director Michael Winterbottom, who has seamlessly instilled a serious side of things, a sense of gravitas, that keeps everything in balance.
These are comedies, but wrapped up inside them are personal issues that reveal what’s making these characters tick. Truth be told, Coogan and Brydon are so good at this sort of thing, it’s very difficult to pinpoint where the real people and their characters diverge. In previous entries, there have been looks at the relationship between Coogan and his son (Tim Leach) and the relationship between Brydon and his wife (Rebecca Johnson), and not all has been rosy. In “The Trip to Greece,” the thin plotline brings in heartfelt and serious thoughts of mortality.
But, yes, it’s still a comedy, and although Coogan and Brydon present it as a continuation of what they’ve done before, they make sure to infuse it with a breath of freshness. As does Winterbottom.
The director chose Greece partially because of the country’s beauty, but also because of its history and its myths. The route he puts his protagonists on distantly mirrors the one taken by Odysseus in “The Odyssey.” The actors - driving and eating and chattering away - let pieces of their real lives seep into their discussions, and they up the ante in the impressions competition (my favorites include a meeting between Stan Laurel - who Coogan played in the film “Stan & Ollie” - and Tom Hardy, and one involving British actor Ray Winstone if he were to play Henry VIII) and, this time, even get into a physical contest over a swimming challenge.
As in the previous TV shows and films, there are six lunches, brief peeks - in extreme close-up - of the meals being prepared in restaurant kitchens, and visits by a couple of women from their publication. One of the odder things about all of this is that neither Coogan nor Brydon seem all that knowledgeable about the food they eat or the wine they drink. Or maybe that’s just how they’re playing the parts. But they certainly come across as an educated, well read pair of travelers with both shared and completely different interests in what they’re seeing and talking about.
If this does turn out to be the final “Trip” film, that’ll be too bad, because these have always been a joy to return to. But it also makes sense to end it here, as the Odysseus story is about going on and ending an extended voyage. To be sure, this has been a funny, thoughtful, long, strange one.
“The Trip to Greece” will be available on cable and digital VOD starting May 22.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Trip to Greece”
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
With Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon