In the opening scene of “The Trip to Greece,” Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, seated (of course!) at an idyllic outdoor table at a to-die-for Mediterranean restaurant, take note of the fact that they’ve been going on their culinary road trips together for close to 10 years. Even for those who have followed them through “The Trip,” “The Trip to Italy,” “The Trip to Spain,” and now “The Trip to Greece,” that news may come as a slightly sobering surprise — a sign of how quickly time passes, and of how a delicate and hilarious series of small-scale semi-improvised British comedies, if they stick around long enough, can become…what? An institution? A franchise?
Maybe something better. The “Trip” films, to those of us who wouldn’t dream of missing one (though we know they’re not so much finely cut gems as casual sketches tricked up into movies — that’s part of their frowsy charm), have become old friends, kind of like Richard Linklater’s “Before” films. Each one is a pared-down version of a six-episode BBC television series, and when you settle in to watch a new one, it’s to see which famous-actor impersonations Coogan and Brydon are going to try to top each other with this time (and also to take a vicarious foodie gawk at the succulent three-course lunches they’re eating). But it’s also to check up on the state of these two: to see how their mutual midlife crisis is going, and to see the latest chapter of their quibbling high-flown showbiz buddy romance, in which taking the piss out of each other, and doing it with the witty precision of verbal gladiators, is the only way they let themselves show what they feel.
I felt, for the first time, that the series was running a bit low on gas in “The Trip to Spain.” It was still a droll 90 minutes, but the impersonations were starting to seem like golden oldies (they didn’t have that comic shock), and the whole Coogan-and-Brydon-as-Don-Quixote-and-Sancho-Panza routine promised more than it gave. In that light, “The Trip to Greece” marks a spirited and convivial return to form, even if the film is lofty enough to present Coogan and Brydon’s six-day Grecian journey as a retracing of the path of Odysseus. (Both men are on their voyage through life, yada yada….)
The two are now in their mid-fifties, and at one point they discuss how Coogan, with his silver-flecked hair, is aging marvelously (Brydon, after playing on Coogan’s conceitedness by comparing him to Richard Gere, declares, “I’m saying it: You look better older. You were unpalatable as a young man”). They then launch into a consideration of Coogan’s performance as Stan Laurel in “Stan & Ollie,” the 2018 Laurel and Hardy biopic, which Brydon manages to compliment and insult at the same time. This leads (of course!) to their impression of Stan Laurel and Tom Hardy, which is more chuckly than uproarious, since they already gave Hardy a full workout in “The Trip to Italy.”
A few scenes later, though, they settle into a dueling impersonation — no, a study — of Dustin Hoffman, mostly in “Marathon Man” and “Tootsie,” and what they do with his voice amounts to such a rip-roaringly funny deconstruction of the actor that it ranks right up there with the duo’s great riffs on Pacino. Coogan, especially, nails the petulant music of Hoffman’s so-nervous-it’s-stroboscopic whine. A sublime impersonation is a comic gift — it needs no justification. Yet the attitude, the drilling-down obsession, that Coogan and Brydon bring to their competitive voice mimicry places it somewhere between poetry and Freud. They’re actor-comedians who can hardly express a personal thought without irony, and who are never more themselves than when they’re channeling somebody else.
They’re also dueling egomaniacs: Coogan, with his rakish grin of self-absorption, a star who is never as revered as he wants to be, and Brydon, who tweaks Coogan’s vanity, and knows it, in a way that only someone who secretly identified with it could do. The fact that Coogan and Brydon are playing heightened versions of themselves is part of the ticklish joy of these films, which capture the playacting inherent in life. (Their personalities are quite literally a performance, and part of the joke is: Whose isn’t?) In “The Trip to Greece,” even as primal anxieties creep in (Brydon, calling home to London, wonders who his wife went to the theater with; Coogan learns that his father has fallen ill), these two never let their theatrical guard down.
The movie keeps serving up treats, and I don’t just mean the food (lamb chops in mint sauce! mussels smothered in pine needles!), as when the two have a go at doing Ray Winstone, in full-on cockney gangster mode, as Henry VIII. Coogan offers an impersonation of Mick Jagger in the hospital after his heart surgery (he’s done Mick before, but it remains a luscious sendup — winsome, pouty, putting on airs about not putting on airs), and this time Brydon accompanies him with a Keith Richards whose speech is gibberish and whose laugh is a death-rattle wheeze. They also, once again, sing pop songs in the car: Brydon does “Grease” (because they’re in Greece) and the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy” (because they’re in Greece — and because he seems fixated on Barry Gibb). And when the two compete to see who can do a better job of imitating Demis Roussos’ falsetto on “Forever and Ever” (“It’s not castrata,” says Steve), you may bust a gut.
At the heart of each of their impersonations is the film’s real subject: their desire to entertain each other by topping each other — that is, the ping-pong of ego between two frenemies who have chosen different paths, but have more in common than they would ever dare to admit. “What would you say is the thing you’re the most proud of?” asks Brydon. Without missing a beat, Coogan says, “My seven BAFTAs.” Brydon: “For me, it would be my children.” Coogan: “Yeah, well, ’cause you haven’t got any BAFTAs.” Brydon: “Though you have got children, which is interesting.” There’s no winner in this duel, just different forms of the impossibility of having it all.
Coogan and Brydon, along with the series’ director, Michael Winterbottom, have suggested that “The Trip to Greece” may be the last outing for these two. But as much as I don’t think we need to see them pursue the same funny-wistful paces through one more cozy corner of Europe, I still think it’s too early for the series to end. How about “The Trip to Japan”? Or, as a grand finale, “The Trip to Hollywood”? It’s time to shake the “Trip” films out of their comfort zone and give these two a brave new world to imitate.