The Trip to Greece marks the fourth and probably final excursion together for Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon and director Michael Winterbottom, whose paradoxical road comedies - freewheeling, yet carefully mapped - have given us a decade of ripe laughs with a side of pathos.
The first one, The Trip, began as a BBC2 series, condensed for a theatrical version. Playing exaggerated editions of their nattering, competitive, charming, grating, touching and frequently stunningly funny selves, Coogan and Brydon toured the Lake District and, in one of many verbal highlights, developed a fantastic improvisation on Rob Roy costume dramas.
Then came The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip to Spain (2017). And now, retracing the 10-year journey of Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca in a breezy, Michelin-star-taverna-laden six days, Trip to Greece ventures into the land of the ancients in order to assess where they've landed in their mid-50s.
At this point the collaborators behind and in front of the camera (or beneath the drone cameras, as they are here, sometimes) could probably do a "Trip to" movie in their sleep. I like some more than others, but they remain remarkably hardy and fruitful comic getaways.
As always Coogan's ego, his drive for success and restless, louche pursuit of women, makes up one set of impulses, while Brydon's steadier domestic life provides the ballast.
The Trip to Greece strains a bit to accommodate its emphasis on Coogan's dark night of the soul, having to do with his elderly, vulnerable father far away. But if we didn't feel the underlying affection Coogan and Brydon have for each other, even when they're engaged in comedians' unquenchable one-upsmanship, we certainly wouldn't be four features into the rolling experiment by now.
In past films their dueling impressions and overlapping riffs provided the glue, and they do again in The Trip to Greece. (My favorite hit-and-run highlight, jumping off of Coogan's recent turn as Stan Laurel in the undervalued biopic Stan & Ollie: Laurel and Hardy if Hardy were Tom Hardy.) The first 10 minutes of director Winterbottom's film should tell you if you're on board or not. I laughed enough in those minutes to make up for the last two or three comedies I've seen.
As always Coogan's ego, his drive for success and restless, louche pursuit of women, makes up one set of impulses, while Brydon's steadier domestic life provides the ballast. At one point in The Trip to Greece, in between a ravishing-looking meal of mussels and smoked pine needles and a visit to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Brydon puts the question to his friend behind the wheel. What's his biggest source of pride? For Brydon, the answer is quick: his children. For Coogan, it's simple, too: "My seven BAFTAS."
We hear impressionistic bits of Anthony Hopkins and Roger Moore, and glimpses of one amazing vista after another. Coogan's approached in one scene by a man he worked with on a film the previous year, a refugee worker on the island of Lesbos. The blithe, expense-account privilege of our hosts is laid if not bare, then at least laid low for a minute or two. Then it's back to the itinerary.
It's probably best to call it after this one. But I remain astonished at the rewatchability of these "Trip to" films. Likewise, I can't quite believe I'd never heard anyone extract the only possible pun from the phrase "Gregorian chant" until Brydon does just that in The Trip to Greece.