Now arriving at its fourth (and allegedly final) installment, Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” series has established Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan as one of the funniest comic duos this side of Laurel and Hardy, but these movies — for all of their dueling Michael Caine impressions and Michelin-delicious meals — have always been suffused with a deep and abiding sense of sadness. They’re not shy about that: The regret, loneliness, and middle-aged malaise come wrapped in a contraceptive of “Philomena” jokes and belittling jabs about Brydon’s career as a “light entertainer,” but the darkness is ever-present, like a backseat passenger these men drive around during their circular road trips around Europe. Instead of a laugh track, every punchline is followed by an existential twang of self-doubt.
Each episode has been a touch bleaker than the last. 2010’s “The Trip,” in which Brydon and Coogan (playing ultra-narcissistic, compulsively performative versions of themselves) spent a week eating at northern England’s finest restaurants as part of an article the latter was assigned to write for a newspaper, was as heartsick as it was hilarious. “The Trip to Italy” repeated the same formula in a sunnier location, but ended on a stinging note of Rohmerian sadness. “The Trip to Spain” made great sport of the series’ purgatorial repetition — underlining the idea that Brydon and Coogan need each other to validate the silliness of their shared existence — only to defy expectations by veering towards grave danger in the final seconds.
That seemed like it might be the last we ever saw of “Steve Coogan,” but the boys are back for one last bite. A fans-only affair that presumes you’ve already digested the previous three courses, “The Trip to Greece” is like being served an irresistible dessert course when your stomach is already bursting at the seams — you can’t help but clean your plate, even if you know it’s going to make you sick. And from an early trip to a refugee camp to a climactic encounter with death, the film makes good on the fact that Greece is the birthplace of drama. While the laughs are still easy and frequent, this time around they feel more like the exception than the rule, and the final moments irrevocably tip the scales toward the unironic sobriety the series has been flirting with for so long (a replica of the Trojan horse comes to symbolize how this supposed romp sneaks past your defenses). Fans won’t be happy to see “The Trip” saga hit the brakes, but at this rate the next installment would have been a Mike Leigh movie. Although this Coogan is so proud of his status as a serious actor that he’d probably love that.
Like every film in the franchise before it, the theatrical cut of “The Trip to Greece” has been trimmed down from a 180-minute cut that aired across six episodes on the BBC. Rather than prune the footage into a greatest hits package, Winterbottom has edited it in a way that accentuates the story’s natural choppiness. Brydon and Coogan can hardly seem to believe they’re doing this again, or understand how they got there; ditching the usual prologue, “The Trip to Greece” shifts into gear feeling like a delightfully idyllic “Groundhog Day.”
This series has always been shaped by a comedy-feedback loop that sees Brydon and Coogan as a pair of vultures who are circling each other in search of validation, but as they get older that dance has started to seem more like a death spiral. Originality is overrated, they agree, and repeating yourself is inevitable for anyone who’s been alive for long enough to hear their own echoes. On the other hand, it can be ominous to visit a new place for the first time and feel like you’ve already been there before. After following in the footsteps of Lord Byron and then cos-playing Don Quixote, our blokes end their 10-year journey by retracing another: Odysseus’ trip (is there a better word for it?) back home from battle.
It’s a trek that wends through Turkey and Macedonia, and gives Brydon and Coogan ample opportunity to riff on the nature and value of imitation. “The Trip to Greece” never threatens to become “Certified Copy” or anything, but Coogan is clearly rattled by the observation that his BAFTA nod for “Stan & Ollie” was for playing someone else, and his father’s illness looms over the movie in a way that leaves him feeling absent from his own life. Even the best Roger Moore impressions can be hard to enjoy for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable returning to a clear identity of their own (they’re still hilarious for the rest of us, though it’s even funnier when Brydon and Coogan each try to re-enact both the Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier parts of the drill scene from “Marathon Man”).
Previous “Trips” were informed by the assumption that Brydon and Coogan were hungry for more, but this one frequently asks whether or not they want to keep going. “Do you want to continue?” a waitress asks in the middle of a meal, nearly inciting a complete psychic collapse from the two aging diners who ogle her every time she leaves their table. Brydon and Coogan laugh off the question, only to find themselves bewitched by three sirens and swimming a race against each other as Philip Glass’ mournful “Koyaanisqatsi” score blares over the soundtrack.
It’s one of several amusing music cues that splits the difference between unchecked solipsism and taking the piss, fitting accompaniment for a movie in which our privileged white lads walk directly into the fourth wall at full speed (Coogan has a “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-worthy encounter with “Greed” co-star Kareem Alkabbani, a Syrian refugee whose name he can’t remember). Even today, Greece is a land of journeys, a fact underscored by how Brydon and Coogan are only there to dick around.
With its two leads distracted by the nagging sense they ought to be somewhere else, “The Trip to Greece” never gets into quite the same rhythm as its predecessors. It’s a tricky balancing act that Winterbottom sometimes wobbles along. He knows that anyone watching this movie would happily pay to see Brydon and Coogan riff through their old bits for hours on end, but also that the series would become just as egocentric as its characters if it let our pleasure interfere with their mortal panic.
So you spend most of the movie waiting for the other shoe to drop, a process that includes the usual assortment of casual sex and energy-sapping dream sequences, with the latter taking a detour into Bergman territory as Winterbottom tries to steel audiences for the life-or-death stakes of its coda. It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that Brydon and Coogan arrive at their own definitions of home before all is said and done (though Brydon’s is invariably sweeter and less defined), even if the film doesn’t put too fine a point on how they’ve guided each other there. And while fans will miss them, it’s hard not to be happy for both of these men, who — like Odysseus confirming his identity to his wife Penelope by telling her about the bed he carved for them out of an olive tree — are each still recognized by the people who know them best.
IFC Films will release “The Trip to Greece” on demand on Friday, May 22.