The Trip series is a ten-year habit for comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in character as roughly fictionalised versions of themselves. Over three movies, it has seen them visit England’s north, Italy and Spain. Ostensibly, they go on assignments, as research for books or magazines, and the beautiful locations sometimes inspire awe (and a poem recitation), and sometimes go absurdly unappreciated. But it is the relationship between the two middle-aged actors that is the real stuff of the series. This fourth time they are touring the birthplace of drama, democracy, and The Odyssey.
It’s not documentary, but the loose and largely improvised script, all British self-deprecation, seems close enough to the truth to be poignant. The conversation on the road and over a meal is mostly competitive showing off by two experienced actors; bragging over their Baftas or audience numbers, demonstrating their learnedness by revealing an interesting fact about historical figures (which they may just have researched covertly the night before). And they do impressions – a lot of impressions: Michael Cain (my personal favourite), Roger Moore, Mick Jagger, David Bowie; and they keep trying to outdo one another with them, even returning to them from film to film.
But The Trip movies are not farce, and though they are frequently hilarious, comedy doesn’t seem a fitting label. The rivalry between the two produces moments of exposing their failures. “Coogan”, the straight man of the duo, is always quick to shoot “Brydon” down as the lesser talent. However, under “Brydon’s” probing he comes uncomfortably close to admitting that he usually chooses career over family. As the series goes on, and “Coogan’s” number of Baftas increases, his shame becomes more palpable.
“Coogan” is arrogant and insecure – by the time of this movie he is trying hard to prove how woke he is. For example, he’s quick to point out to a refugee activist they encounter that he owns an electric car, though “Brydon” is just as quick to query if all “Coogan’s” cars are electric. Meanwhile, “Brydon” at times pushes his comedy into social dysfunction, as a defence mechanism, and his monologuing becomes less funny and more exhausting. Both men lack self-awareness.
In fact, while these are very funny movies at surface level, the stronger undercurrent is a feeling of sadness. The humour is an often-futile attempt to rail against middle-aged regret and looming mortality. Career success has not brought “Coogan” fulfilling relationships, and “Brydon’s” devotion to his family (though even that wavers in one movie) does not give him real purpose. It’s almost like the message here is that nothing will ever keep loneliness away. But The Trip to Greece is about both men realigning their values, so that for the first time they may be giving themselves the best chance at meaning. It comes as close as this laugh-out-loud series gets to hopeful.
The Trip movies are a consistently brilliant balance of humour and melancholy, comedy and tragedy together like the masks the two men fight over at a photo shoot. They are masterfully acted, and written with the kind of wisdom that comes from real living. Watch The Trip to Greece on its own (it should stand up ok), or get the pay-off of experiencing the whole series. Do it, if you can handle things quiet and dialogue-based, because what was one of the best trilogies is now probably the greatest movie quadrilogy of all time.
The Trip to Greece is now available for purchase on demand.