Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip to Greece“ serves as the grand denouement of the four-part traveling mockumentary series. Judging by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s politically incorrect banter and blatant gawking at women two decades or more, their junior, 2020 really is the time to make a graceful exit. That isn’t to say the duo’s last hurrah isn’t without valuable introspection or cathartic wit for the distressing age we live in.
The pair are still fresh at the ready with impersonations and harmless barbs while dining. Moreover, it’s inspiring to see these aging actors easily endure the taxing nature of both country and coastal expedition. With unintended impeccable timing, the serious comic trio of Winterbottom, Coogan, and Brydon deliver the perfect remedy for quarantine: a virtual reunion with old friends whose idiosyncrasies thankfully never change.
What began ten years ago as a “buddy” road trip offering cultural enlightenment at a leisure place soon evolved into a triennial tradition. The jokes may be outdated despite their charm, the impersonations less impressive than previous entries. Still, like Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, there’s an indescribable compulsion to keep revisiting Coogan and Brydon’s repetitive repartee. Coogan is as self-aggrandizing as ever, while Brydon pokes fun at the BAFTA-winner’s pompousness despite resigning himself to a sidekick role. There’s a great conversation deep into their Greek tour about the emasculation of men when it comes to driving versus riding passenger. The pair don’t even realize they are voicing frustrations that society has with toxic masculinity. Their acknowledgment of these gender-specific insecurities shows promising self-awareness, fueled by the very social media outrage they claim to despise.
The hackneyed message of many buddy comedies is that a person is only as good as the unbreakable bond they have with their best mate. After four installments, “The Trip” quadrilogy winds up concluding the opposite. Real friendship means naturally enjoying each other’s company, but knowing when to keep a distance so the individual can flourish. The three prior excursions had the more prolific actor making all the decisions, while Brydon was often relegated to comedic relief bystander. Every trip goes sideways because of something in Coogan’s private life, leaving Brydon without room to use these journeys for personal and professional growth. Whether or not this is a commentary on the stark career differences between the two actors, the fact remains that Brydon is owed equal spotlight opportunity. Luckily, Winterbottom ensures our favorite voice-impersonating whiz gets his day in the blazing Athenian sun.
Although fictionalized, the series employs “reality tv” interior moments to break the celebrity facade of superiority. Coogan plays himself as the pretentious version everyone expects him to be, highlighting the way stars often morph into the image projected onto them by the public. Brydon is more grounded, less prone to boasting his achievements every fifth line of conversation. Coogan’s flawed vulnerability offers immeasurable insight into the dangers of being too devoted to one’s craft, obsessed with chasing highbrow status when moviegoers could care less. By the end of “The Trip to Greece,” Coogan comes to realize that being a braggadocios scholar of arts and history only weakens his awareness of the modern era.
While the series’ relaxed pacing and dialogue-heavy gimmicks lost some luster over the past decade, there’s no denying how memorable the complete odyssey ended up being. Worldly palettes were sophisticated just by watching the two actors dig into exquisite dishes from Europe’s most renowned restaurants. Most stunning of all is how unlikely a personality draw Coogan and Brydon could be. Their camaraderie is easy without feeling essential, one sly snob and riveting Rob to make a trek across Europe a privileged education with nary a dull lesson.
“The Trip to Greece” is distributed by IFC Films and releases on digital and VOD this Friday, May 22, 2020.