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A bellyful: ‘The Trip to Greece’

By Anwen Crawford
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon continue to charm in their final food odyssey

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Greece

“Originality is overrated,” declares Steve Coogan to Rob Brydon at the outset of The Trip to Greece. “The greatest poem in the Roman Empire was a rip-off of The Odyssey.”

This is a neatly referential piece of dialogue. The Trip to Greece (streaming now) is, after all, the fourth in a series of films, each one edited down from a television miniseries, in which actor-comedians Coogan and Brydon do much the same thing each time, in different parts of Europe. At the fictional commission of one real-life paper or another – The New York Times, The Observer – they eat at fancy restaurants, tour historic sites, stay in charming hotels and all the while jibe at each other, using other people’s voices: Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Mick Jagger, et al. Between courses and amid lovely views, the rivalrous pair rifle through their catalogue of imitations, as each also plays a version of himself. Director Michael Winterbottom peppers each film with references to other filmmakers, to literature, and to his own extensive body of work.

All this metatextual cleverness might be unbearable in another, tighter sort of comedy, but one lasting pleasure of the Trip series has been its utter shagginess. Each instalment takes place over six consecutive days, and within this span Winterbottom is content to let his leads amble. Improvising around their semi-fictionalised selves, Coogan and Brydon will needle and sometimes bore each other with banter and imitations that always threaten to run on for just a bit too long. The impatience, frustration and ego they both display constitute, for the viewer, a chief part of the amusement. “Exhausting, me?” replies Brydon to Coogan, incredulously, after the latter has accused him of the same. “Good god, you should meet you.”

The “Steve Coogan” that Coogan plays in these films can indeed be tiresome. Competitive and conceited, he waves his accolades in front of Brydon – his seven BAFTAs are a favourite theme – in order to goad his companion. But Brydon, less career-minded, won’t rise to the provocation, quite content to best Coogan at lunch-table japery (his impression of the chat-show host Michael Parkinson never fails to reduce Coogan to helpless laughter) and leave the industry baubles out of it. “Rob looks like he’d be more fun to hang out with”, observed the real Coogan in a real interview about the self-parodic nature of these films. “I look just angry.”

And older. (“I look better as I get older,” Coogan brags to Brydon in The Trip to Greece. For once it’s not an empty boast: he really does.) This comedy of indolence is shadowed by the wastage of that time. It’s been a decade since The Trip, filmed in northern England, set the frenemies on their gastronomic travels, and Winterbottom has said that The Trip to Greece will be the last in the series. Nothing much about Brydon’s or Coogan’s characters have altered along the way. Neither man can quite be bothered, from within the padding of their material success, to be less self-regarding, less emotionally shallow. Coogan still chases younger women and Brydon still takes his (fictional) wife and children for granted. Age has crept upon them, but self-insight proves elusive; the same habits keep deceiving. Winterbottom leaves just enough moments of lull – and Coogan and Brydon are both, in actuality, skilled enough actors – to create the sense that both men are dogged by their failure to be properly decent, or to reckon with life more fully. What they are is fortunate, and at heart they know it.

Sumptuous food, crystal waters, crisp leisure wear: all of these can be encountered vicariously in The Trip to Greece. And right now, when there’s nowhere to go but the local park, such a virtual journey has more appeal than ever. (Among its other genre allusions and rip-offs – the buddy comedy, the grand tour – the Trip quartet has always winked at the kind of luxury travelogue that is a staple of contemporary television programming.) The current context also makes the film’s indulgence more surreal, but then, the unjust distribution of wealth is a frequent subject for Winterbottom. His most recent film, Greed, which also stars Coogan and has yet to be released here, is a fictional portrait of a high-street fashion tycoon (loosely based on Philip Green, the owner of Topshop) who makes billions in profit by paying a pittance to his sweatshop workers in Bangladesh. According to the director, a series of end credits that detailed labour exploitation in the fashion industry were pulled at the insistence of the film’s distributor, Sony.

“It’s a job, I’m not asking you to go on holiday with me or anything weird,” Coogan counselled Brydon 10 years ago, at the commencement of The Trip. But this is part of the joke. Complimentary dining isn’t work as most people understand it, and the two have remained largely indifferent to both the food and the effort gone into making it. (An occasional superlative is about as far as they venture into food criticism; Jay Rayner needn’t feel threatened.) But not Winterbottom, who makes chefs and waiters into incidental cast members, filming their work in the kitchen or among the dining tables. These people, unblessed by the light of celebrity, are a reminder – to the viewer, if not to Coogan and Brydon – that the stars’ jesting is enabled by a whole busy world.

It’s also true that the pair’s heedlessness to their own existential insignificance is both the rueful punchline and the last, best charm of these films. Like most of us, they choose to ignore any intimations of mortality or portents of fate. “I had a poor tent once,” remarks Brydon to Coogan, as they wander the ruins of Troy. “No groundsheet.”

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Greece

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