It’s been a decade since director Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” took Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on a restaurant tour of England’s Lake District. That was followed by “The Trip to Italy” in 2014 and “The Trip to Spain” in 2017.
The latest and purportedly final offering in the series is “The Trip to Greece,” in which Brydon and Coogan retrace the path taken by the ancient hero Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca. Each “Trip” features the pair as fictionalized versions of themselves and have been edited into both six-episode series for British television and feature films for export.
It’s a simple recipe and remarkably effective. Travel plus food plus comedy. Each journey takes the same basic form of six meals in six places, with Meta-Steve and Meta-Rob competing with each other to show off their local knowledge and their ability to do impressions. There’s just enough variation to keep it interesting.
The conceit of the two playing themselves actually began with Winterbottom’s 2005 film “Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” and the trio first collaborated on the 2000 film “24 Hour Party People” (the prolific Winterbottom also directed Coogan in the recent comedy “Greed”).
Notable impressions this time include Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Mick Jagger and Stan Laurel — with Coogan, quite tellingly, taking exception when Brydon refers to his performance in 2018’s “Stan & Ollie” as an impression. Meta-Steve goes to great pains to be taken seriously as an actor and there’s a running gag of him reminding people that he has seven BAFTAs.
Greece serves not only as an idyllic backdrop but as a constant thematic prompt with Coogan and Brydon blending Hellenic-inspired shtick with musings on women, family and aging. The elapsed 10 years cast a shadow for the two men, now in their mid-50s and beginning to take stock.
The pair have an easy rapport, evoking the kind of friendship where you greatly enjoy someone’s company but also find them a bit annoying. Coogan is tightly wound and self-absorbed while Brydon is easygoing and relaxed. The relationship is defined by a playful one-upmanship driven by Meta-Steve’s hyper-competitiveness but extends to his need to constantly slight Meta-Rob for only doing “light” entertainment and belittling his uncanny ability to turn almost any reference into a Bee Gees song.
It’s not a huge shock to see which man is truly happy with his life.
There is a time’s-running-out quality to the proceedings with the film seemingly commenting/not commenting on the fact that the problems of a couple of privileged white males don’t carry the same dramatic weight they once did. And while there doesn’t seem to be a lot of self-awareness regarding where they fit into the big picture, Steve and Rob do regularly pull back from the banter and the clowning to appreciate the surroundings.
And those surroundings are something. For pure eye candy, you cannot go wrong with the islands and surrounding coastline of the Aegean, all beautifully shot by cinematographer James Clarke. The ambience is further enhanced by Winterbottom and music supervisors Rupert Hollier and David Fish’s use of classical works and repurposing of Michael Nyman compositions.
In our current pandemic times, “Greece” resonates on a couple of levels — one vicarious and one eminently relatable. First, Steve and Rob can do what we mostly can’t, namely visit beautiful places, stay in luxury hotels and dine on fine food with amusing companions. Second, their interactions with their families at home, limited as they are to phone calls and video chats, are unexpectedly moving.
What began as a fairly lighthearted series of vignettes has developed some gravitas in the end. The final movie builds toward a serious turn that puts the entire series’ meta qualities and more philosophical themes in stark relief. Even for a pair of clowns, life gets very real.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: Available May 22 on VOD