One of my absolute, all-time favorite film series doesn’t feature any special effects or crazy stunts. What the The Trip movies do feature are two of the most engaging and often hilarious human beings on the planet, who only seem to get exponentially funny when they are in a vehicle together or across a dinner table from one another. For about 10 years now, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan have teamed with director Michael Winterbottom for four journeys through different countries, visiting significant landmarks and eating some of the best food available in Europe.
Not documentaries but not entirely fiction either, The Trip series is the loosely scripted, largely improvised tale of these two very different, very silly men begrudgingly traveling together for the purposes of magazine articles or books chronicling their adventures. Along the way, they give brief history lessons and witty observations about the locations, which have previously included the English countryside (The Trip), Spain (The Trip to Spain) and Italy (The Trip to Italy). It should also be noted that the films are actually pared-down versions of much longer TV series (running about three hours total; the films usually run just under two hours).
The latest, The Trip to Greece, is meant to be the final installment, and I hope this isn’t true because there are still so many picturesque places for these two to visit. But the rather somber conclusion of this film leads me to believe this may mark the end of the road for our travelers. Without the usual prologue of getting Brydon and Coogan (both playing versions of themselves) out of London and on the road, Greece begins with the pair on the verge of hopping a ferry from Troy in Turkey and crossing the Aegean Sea into Greece. The plan is for the actors to follow in the post-Trojan War footsteps of Odysseus in The Odyssey, which takes place over 10 years (the fact that these films began about 10 years ago may have factored into deciding upon this path) and ends in Ithaca. Their trip will include trading verbal jabs, celebrity impersonations, and the occasional personal detail.
The conceit of The Trip movies is that these two aren’t really that close as friends. Coogan seems blissfully disinterested in Brydon’s stories of marital and familial contentment, instead coming across as comically conceited and more focused on his career and the accolades that result (in the previous film, which took place shortly after Coogan was twice Oscar nominated for co-writing/producing Philomena, he was almost unbearably high on himself). But we always seem to catch him as his acting jobs are drying up and interest in him is waning. Brydon’s persona is more easy going; he’s less popular outside of the United States, but he doesn’t care. He’s beloved, whereas Coogan has a reputation as being something of a dick (at least in The Trip‘s cinematic universe). They poke relentless fun at the other’s position in the entertainment world, and their pain is our hysterical joy.
Whether Coogan and Brydon actually enjoy each other’s company seems to depend on the moment. The real appeal of the film is the meals, which we usually see expertly prepared in Michelin-starred kitchens and served with a detailed explanation of each course. In these moments (which often involve drinks), the two men are at their finest, as friends and jokesters. In every installment, they are joined for a day by Coogan’s assistant Emma (Claire Keelan) and photographer Yolanda (Marta Barrio) for a photo shoot to accompany the article. But in all four chapters, Coogan ends up sleeping with Yolanda, while Brydon and Emma explore whatever city they happen to be in. It’s a routine that I’ve grown to look forward to, because it’s the one time in each movie where the actors have an actual audience, and they turn the humor up to extreme degrees.
The other constant in The Trip movies is Coogan’s son Joe (Timothy Leach), who we’ve seen go from moody teenager in the first film to dutiful young father here. In the background of The Trip to Greece, Coogan is dealing with a family matter back home, and thinking it isn’t urgent enough to cut the journey short, he lets Joe handle things until they become too much for even this responsible young man. And it’s this element of the movie that pushes the series into territory it hasn’t really gone before now. It drives home messages about the passage of time, and the results are the most dramatic and moving moments these films have ever given us.
It seems almost impossible for these movies to be anything but satisfying and wholly entertaining, but I hadn’t expected them to approach poignant the way this one does here. But it’s the kind of poignancy that can only be achieved by having spent so much time with these two men. The Trip films are like visiting old friends that we don’t see often. But when we do, we can pick things up right where we left off. That’s the mark of true intimacy, and it’s the quality that makes these stories so universal, even if we’ll never get to visit these exotic locations on someone else’s dime.
The film will be available this Friday via cable and digital VOD.
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