Everyone relax: Steve Coogan survived his encounter with ISIS in North Africa at the end of 2017’s The Trip to Spain, and with minimal post-traumatic scarring to show for it. In fact, as he appears in The Trip to Greece, the fourth installment of Michael Winterbottom’s decade-running foodie travelogue series—whether in its original television format or its cut-for-American-cinemas film format—he remains the same self-aggrandizing blowhard he plays in most of his work. So, no harm done and no lessons learned, either, at least none he’s willing to explore with vulnerability and humility. That’s the Coogan people know and love.
The Trip to Greece opens in the middle of lunch with Coogan and Rob Brydon, his friend, confidant and conscience, both playing themselves, or versions of themselves. Ten years on, though, the lines between truth and fiction have blurred so much that these movies, or TV shows, give the pair space to act out their authentic personas (with some embellishment), functioning as retrospectives of their lives as well as their careers. Brydon and Coogan’s wry reflections are as much a product of their performances as their scripts. As with each preceding chapter in The Trip saga (franchise?), they co-write The Trip to Greece, though over the course of each foreign sojourn their chemistry has grown natural to the point where writing feels superfluous. By now, The Trip movies follow a strict formula, as if proving that formulas work, but its formula is part of the design: a continuation of the bickering and bantering Coogan and Brydon have engaged in since 2010.
What use do these men have for such antediluvian devices as screenplays? Coogan and Brydon know each other inside and out. Coogan never misses an opportunity to remind Brydon who enjoys more success between the two of them, and Brydon has accepted the job of undercutting Coogan’s ego like a knight’s sacred trust. The Trip to Greece doesn’t waste time reinforcing for audiences which task is more meaningful; Coogan, at the time of filming, was just on the heels of his role in Stan & Ollie, for which he received awards nominations (but no wins) and ample critical praise. Over in the loser’s corner sits Brydon, who starred in Holmes & Watson the same year, a film met with six Razzie nominations.
Still, The Trip movies have always embraced contrasting definitions of success, so Coogan’s competition with Brydon, in which Coogan is the only willing participant, is all part of the game. Brydon relishes his own victories, particularly his home and family life, something Coogan lacks and quite likely envies, though he’d never say so out loud. These movies hinge on Coogan’s desire for greatness while strongly implying he wants what Brydon has; Brydon, the wiser of the two, appears quietly aware of this unspoken dynamic, but like Coogan he’s incapable of vocalizing his thoughts due to his unfailing Britishness. (Brydon, of course, is Welsh, another advantage he holds over his peer.) It’s a relationship built on mutual ribbing and one-sided jealousy and, sure, friendship.
Brydon and Coogan’s friendship is predicated on jabs both high and low. Never one to miss a chance at showing off his education, Coogan references Lord Byron’s proudest achievement: crossing the Hellespont in 70 minutes, in 1810. The story sparks Brydon’s interest, and he asks Coogan about his own proudest accomplishments. Coogan cites his seven BAFTAs; Brydon cites his children. “Yeah, well, because you haven’t got any BAFTAs,” Coogan coolly snipes. “But you have got children, which is interesting,” Brydon replies, not missing a beat. It’s the kind of verbal sparring match that defines The Trip on a molecular level after the food, which takes more of a backseat in The Trip to Greece.
Not that Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon treat food as an afterthought—whether it’s in the pan or on the plate, Winterbottom’s cinematographer, James Clarke, photographs each dish with mouth-watering clarity—but the fellows have increasingly more on their minds, especially Coogan, who spends the whole movie confronting his dad’s mortality, a struggle dramatized in black and white arthouse dream sequences worth describing as “Bergman-esque.” Coogan is The Trip to Greece’s font of ego as well as withheld melancholy. As usual, he talks a good talk and cracks wise with Rob, and anybody within earshot, in part to avoid dealing with his feelings. His successes fail him: All the BAFTAs in the world can’t prepare a man for his dad’s imminent passing. Might as well whip out the ol’ Mick Jagger impression.
Telltale signs of death surround Coogan and Brydon on this journey anyways, in ancient Greek ruins and along the barbed wire fence surrounding the refugee camp that Kareem Alkabbani calls his (temporary) home. Alkabbani played a small but essential role in Winterbottom’s spectacular misfire and most recent collaboration with Coogan, March’s Greed, a version of himself much like the versions of selves Coogan and Brydon play in each chapter of The Trip. Greece holds Coogan more accountable for his arrogance through his semi-professional relationship to Alkabbani, whose first name he doesn’t even remember. If you, like critics, consider Coogan selfish or asinine, the film will validate that view, but for a purpose, and through the sharpest of organic comedy.
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Writers: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Kareem Alkabbani, Claire Keelan, Cordelia Bugeja, Tim Leach
Release Date: May 22, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.