“Imitation comes naturally to human beings and so does the universal pleasure in imitation.” —Aristotle, Poetics
So quotes the British television personality Rob Brydon to his longtime fellow traveler and peer in English entertainment, Steve Coogan, as the two commence the latest installment in a decadelong series of adventures that has taken the gloriously mismatched pair on odysseys through Italy, Spain, the north of England and now, in the fourth edition, Greece. The films themselves—known as The Trip movies—have carved out an unusual niche that alchemizes improv, narrative film, and the sort of elevated televised travelogue perfected by Anthony Bourdain. The result is a compelling hybrid whose foundational elements are the remarkable comic chemistry between Coogan and Brydon and the sumptuous visual flair of director Michael Winterbottom.
The Trip to Greece makes the odyssey metaphor literal: In this edition, our protagonists have resolved, or at least have been persuaded, to retrace the steps of Odysseus’s endless journey home from the Trojan War.
In truth, Brydon doesn’t quote Aristotle exactly. He reads theatrically aloud from a Penguin Classics edition at a high-end Turkish restaurant where he and Steve Coogan are enjoying a typical fine-dining experience while driving one another up a wall. The animating action of 2010’s franchise-launching The Trip explained that Coogan had been hired by a big-ticket publication to travel in style through the British countryside, sampling all of the most extravagant cuisine the region had to offer. The budget for this junket was so generous that he could even afford to bring along a friend. The problem was, he had no friends. So, Coogan invited Brydon. Having always perceived Coogan a pompous ass, Brydon was puzzled by the offer but too curious to turn it down. Countless laugh-out-loud verbal jousting matches later, the world is a better place for it.
Reduced to its simplest terms, the dynamic between Brydon and Coogan is the populist entertainer pit against the high-minded auteur. Ostensibly, Coogan regards Brydon’s comedy as needlessly pandering, while Brydon fatigues easily of Coogan’s sanctimonious homilies on high art and literature. Brydon hectors Coogan as he drives through some remote Athens suburb, singing the Barry Gibb–penned theme from Grease. Coogan lashes out: “Are you singing the theme to Grease simply because we are in Greece? You do realize it’s a homophone.” “How dare you!” an ostensibly offended Brydon replies, with mock indignity. And so it goes—adult men reduced to childish bickering, which in some peculiar way centers them.
On one level, The Trip series is intended to function as a high-gloss, chamber of commerce–approved overview of some of Europe’s most stunning and fascinating sites, and it routinely succeeds spectacularly at this task. In The Trip to Greece, mountain views and Mediterranean vistas are shot with opulent majesty, gourmet meals are carefully prepared and elegantly served, and tours are taken with an appropriate awestruck awareness of their historical consequence. If all you want out of The Trip series is an opportunity to luxuriate by proxy, you will find the movies gratifying. But increasingly, this isn’t what the movies are really about at all.
On another level, there are instances of terrible loneliness in The Trip pictures, specifically the sidebars when we see Brydon and Coogan reach out to their respective spouses, children, and girlfriends over phone or video. Travel allows for the provisional possibility of what it might really mean to be separated from your domestic arrangements, among other things. It is a temporary window into the road not taken.
If The Trip movies have a signature gambit, it is the propensity of Brydon and Coogan to break into dueling celebrity impressions mid-conversation, as though this were a perfectly ordinary mode of interlocution.
The impersonations themselves—of Marlon Brando, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and other canonical figures of 20th-century entertainment—are funny on their own. Both are gifted mimics. But the true hilarity comes from the manner in which these episodes escalate, each party inevitably regarding the other’s attempts as left wanting, constantly interrupting one another to critique tone and inflection. The effect is suggestive of a tennis match conducted by two highly skilled players, both reluctant to acknowledge the ability of their rival. It is also one of a handful of tactics the two employ to cope with the imposed intimacy of their circumstances without resorting to the unpalatable alternative of expressing true emotion or anxiety.
The sort of situation in which two souls are drawn together only to reveal one another’s essence through their differences is a venerable, if offbeat, microgenre. One antecedent of the Trip movies is the series of pictures Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made together between 1940 and 1962—known collectively as The Road movies—which feature two very different brands of entertainers on loosely scripted and largely improvised sojourns that frequently break the fourth wall. In both instances, a central subtext is the strangeness of traveling with someone under close conditions that you know well but not intimately.
Hope and Crosby are a primordial version of Brydon and Coogan —both pairs are bound together by cosmic happenstance, without particular explanation. Hope is always eager to please and happy to overact if the moment calls for it. Crosby fashions himself subtle and dignified, but his weakness for women and general lack of discipline tends to derail their stated goals, mirroring Coogan’s messy personal life in The Trip movies.
Both series employ a host of tactical misdirects—surrealism, dream sequences, and endless gags—which elide the limitless problems the pair make for one another, and the fundamental ways in which their connection is both mysterious and arbitrary.
Another progenitor, closer to home, is Tom Stoppard’s 1990 head-fuck masterpiece Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which reimagines two of Hamlet’s minor characters as bumbling companions trapped in an endless loop of meta-history, trying to reason out their destiny through an ongoing dialogue in which neither can remember which of their names applies to one or the other. This mirrors the gradual sense in The Trip movies that Brydon and Coogan—over their most strident objections—are beginning to blur together in middle age.
In their endless babble and occasional acts of tenderness, the title characters played by Tim Roth and Gary Oldman in Stoppard’s picture ultimately come to recognize that their plight is shared, their differences immaterial, and in the end it always turns out the same for all of us. Their game of rhetorical tennis is a comic reflection on the nagging horror that lies just beyond the last clever remark. A poet once said, ”You may be pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life.”
Some of the strange and compelling energy that characterizes The Trip movies is attributable to the program’s initial beginnings as episodic television on BBC. Each of the four seasons was first aired as a series of 40-minute specials before being edited into feature-length films. As a result, narrative beats occur at unorthodox intervals while resolutions hang uncomfortably for what can seem a long time. Early on in The Trip to Greece, we learn that Coogan is experiencing a family crisis. We see him briefly forlorn before he saunters around Greece. In the last act of the picture, the full threat of potential tragedy has been realized. These tonal shifts might feel more organic when broken up into weekly bites, but in the feature version, the emotional whiplash is powerful. Winterbottom, the brilliant director of Welcome to Sarajevo and 24 Hour Party People, makes a virtue of this potential complication.
There is some precedent for this. Large swaths of David Lynch’s 2001 classic Mulholland Drive were originally scheduled to be aired as a weekly network show, before ABC got squirrelly and cut bait. That gave Lynch the opportunity to re-edit the would-be series into one of the great cinematic achievements of recent times. As streaming services and studios increasingly blur the line between traditional features and television, a new vernacular will undoubtedly emerge that intuitively interpolates the best and worst practices of each medium. The Trip movies have been a sort of canary in the coal mine for this process, to great effect.
Ultimately, The Trip’s two principals are one but they’re not the same. Brydon and Coogan as portrayed in the series are the human equivalent of major and minor chords: wonderful in relation to one another, but permanently separated by their modal constitution.
In this way, they are the McCartney and Lennon of road pictures, each finding the other nourishing and exhausting in equal measure, each startled by the prospect that they might be characterized as the irritating one.
During the surreal climax of The Trip to Spain, the entry prior to The Trip to Greece, Coogan’s tortured romantic exertions leave him sideways and stranded with a broken car somewhere in the North African desert. His rescuers arrive, but they do so on a tank, and it soon transpires that they are revolutionary militants. It’s a moment that could have occurred in Hope and Crosby’s Road pictures, or amidst the sundry insanities of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Meanwhile Brydon and his wife blissfully reconnect in their London home, wondering why Coogan has disappeared for days.
This is characteristic of The Trip pictures, which tend to end well for Brydon and badly for Coogan, though not always with such an outsized flourish. In The Trip to Greece, the film’s culminating moments are rendered terribly moving by a scene in which the two finally say nothing at all. Bad news has befallen them, and for once the intercession of outside events has muted Brydon and Coogan’s otherworldly capacity to bullshit around every last thing the universe has to offer. Then, in a moment of cinematic embrace as surprising and unexpected as any since Walter and the Dude’s at Donny’s funeral, Coogan and Brydon wordlessly hug. They promise to see one another again. But there’s no telling what the future holds, and there is an awful poignance in their parting. As Cole Porter once put it: “How strange the change from major to minor, every time we say goodbye.”