Producers: Josh Hyams and Melissa Parmenter Director: Michael Winterbottom Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Marta Barrio, Tim Leach, Cordelia Bugeja, Justin Edwards, Tessa Walker, Richard Clews, Harry Taylor, Kareem Alkabbani and Soraya Mahalia Hatner Distributor: IFC Films
This fourth—and reportedly final—installment of the satirical travelogue series by Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is, like its predecessors, a re-edited, shortened version of a six-part television program. It’s another amusing exhibition of its stars’ skill at improvisation and willingness to indulge in self-deprecation, with mournful undertones about aging and mortality.
The conceit behind this trip is that Coogan and Brydon are following the voyage home that Odysseus takes in Homer’s “Odyssey” (though allusion is also periodically drawn to the Roman equivalent, Vergil’s “Aeneid”). Thus they begin their journey at the site of Troy in Turkey, proceed across the Aegean to Macedonia, and then continue via Delphi and Athens to the western coast of Greece, visiting Pylos before moving on—it’s arranged—to Ithaca. Along the way they dole out bits and pieces of mythology, literature and history to situate viewers who might not be up on knowledge of ancient Greece. They also point out that they’ve been doing the series for ten years—the purported length of the Trojan War.
As usual, the stops along the way are marked by visits to fine restaurants, where the duo enjoy scrumptious meals while striving to outdo each other in comic improv. This too is given a basis in the Greek classics near the start, when Brydon reads a passage from Aristotle’s “Poetics” to the effect that all art is imitation—something that obviously connects with the stars’ emphasis on impressions in their battle of one-upsmanship.
Coogan and Brydon show themselves, once more, as skilled vocal mimics. They begin with a riff based on Coogan’s recent turn as Stan Laurel in “Stan & Ollie” (part of the joke—as in the previous installment’s references to “Philomena”—is his insistence on being referred to as an actor and writer rather than a “mere” light entertainer, like Brydon—and his repeated mention of the numbers of BAFTAs he’s won). In this case Brydon adopts the take on the muffled diction of Tom Hardy that the two have used before to move into a conversation between a very different version of Laurel and Hardy than the one we’re accustomed to.
That’s just the beginning. In the course of the trip the two hit numerous unsurprising vocal targets—Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, Mick Jagger, Sean Connery, et al. Coogan also returns to his funny bit imitating Godzilla and dubbed movies, and Brydon to his “man in a box” voice. But in addition to the predictable and recycled material—which still earns some chuckles—there’s plenty of new stuff, like Brydon’s routine on Dustin Hoffman’s many voices over the years to Coogan’s impression of Ray Winstone playing King Henry VIII as a Cockney gangster. And that’s just the beginning, which goes on to their competitive singalongs during their long drives. The competition continues elsewhere, too—in a swimming race on the Hellespont, for example.
Some of the humor, it should be noted, is more than a little risqué, in a juvenile way. On the island of Lesbos, they can’t resist joking about Sappho and the hotels named after her. And when Coogan discourses on the battle of Salamis, the discussion quickly veers to jokes about the male anatomy. Even Winterbottom is not immune from this sort of thing. He regularly shows workers in the restaurant preparing the pair’s luscious dishes, and the wait staff delivering them to their table with a flourish. But when it happens to be a beautiful young thing wearing a pair of tight shorts as she brings their orders to them on a patio overlooking the Aegean, the director and his editor Marc Richardson make sure not to miss a single course.
But the film adds a disquieting note to the proceedings by adding to the series’ customary concerns about growing old another theme taken from Homer and Vergil—that of the ties of family and “getting home.” A brief encounter with an actor (Kareem Alkabbani) now working at a refugee camp touches on the subject; the displaced residents obviously reflect the loss of home.
But Winterbottom also personalizes the matter. For Brydon that means regular calls to his wife, whose fidelity during his absence he doubts, though without real cause. It turns out that she’s a modern Penelope, and she comes to join her husband in Greece at the close.
That happy reunion is contrasted with what happens in Coogan’s case. His calls home to his son (Tim Leach) are concerned with the health of his father (Richard Clews), who in his dreams morphs into Anchises, Aeneas’ doomed father. At one point Coogan, an inveterate, now divorced philander, jokes about losing a wife and gaining an empire, but his worry about his career “empire” in calls to his agent is compounded by the news he receives from his son, which causes him to break off the filming and abruptly return to England, where his ex-wife commiserates with him. The part of the journey in which Steve and Rob take a boat through water-filled caverns, recalling the final legendary trip to the domain of Hades (a role that, we’re repeatedly reminded, Coogan played in a Percy Jackson movie), reinforces the idea that death is an inevitability everyone must finally confront.
“The Trip to Greece,” in other words, is more than just an extended vaudeville routine between Coogan and Brydon—though it’s enjoyable on those terms. And it’s more than a lovely travelogue through the Aegean, lovingly photographed by James Clarke. It also serves as a rumination on family, aging and death, in which the mournful mood of its music score—composed of bits by Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, among others—plays a major role.
Though it’s not without blemishes—at one point Coogan tells Brydon he can be exhausting, to which Brydon responds, “You should try meeting you!“—“The Trip to Greece” is a fitting capstone to a series that, unlike so many others, hasn’t outworn its welcome.