I don’t think I’ve ever felt like another film in The Trip saga quite so acutely as I have during 2020, so it was a wonderful surprise to find The Trip to Greece suddenly available on my local streaming service (I hadn’t heard much about it). This latest addition to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s travels must have been filmed and edited just before Covid-19 emerged, so it’s one of our last documents of three spectacles that have become increasingly unfamiliar over the last year – tourism, eating in public, and middle-aged people moving comfortably through open spaces. This pre-Covid world is even more moving in that The Trip to Greece is quite bright and sunny after the more sombre overtones of The Trip to Spain, following Coogan and Brydon across the Hellespont to Greece, and from there through a series of winding roads that are never too far from the ocean, or from a horizon beckoning them onto the next adventure.
There’s also a new level of surrealism with the impersonations here, which include a stop-motion Godzilla, a dubbed voice, Dustin Hoffman’s tooth, castrati and falsetti, Gregorian chant, and a variety of electronic bleeps and gurgles, including the synth refrain from Chariots of Fire. Meanwhile, Coogan and Brydon slip in and out of their regular impersonations – Bond, Brando, Pacino, Ray Winstone – so fluidly that they barely even reference who they’re mimicking. More than any of the previous films, all the conversation here feels poised on the cusp of impersonation, just as Coogan and Brydon are pivoted even more dextrously between their real and projected selves. As a result, the dialogue also contains more fluidly free association than any of the other films – most memorably when Brydon segues from reflections on Greece to Grease, and then to a Bee Gees fixation that lasts the entire movie.
As the two men move through Greece, they trace out the path of Odysseus, which produces a much more rousing and resilient vision of encroaching old age than in The Trip to Spain, which retraced a journey Coogan took as a young man and folded into the more bathetic path of Don Quixote. As Coogan points out, they’re still too young to have been elected to the parliament of Sparta, which only accepted men over sixty, although old enough to have settled into a pretty compelling version of what friendship looks like in middle age as well. Both men have things they want to say, explain and expound, even or especially if they know the other person had already heard it, or already knows it, since the point of their dialogue isn’t really new knowledge or information, but finding flexibility within their long-worn conversational grooves, and showing their familiarity and tolerance for each others’ foibles.
There’s still a beautiful bittersweet quality, though, which resonates even more post-pandemic, especially since food isn’t quite so much of a focus this time around, at least not in the film. In fact, Coogan and Brydon don’t seem to need much sustenance of any kind – food, water, sleep, sex – since they’ve come out the other side of their youths burnished with a new sense of fortitude. As a result, the most plangent moments tend to be reserved for their encounters with the ancient world, and the way the various historical sites make them pause to reflect on their own impending old age and death – both what will vanish, but also what will survive. Lest that sound too hubristic, however, the series is alive as ever to Coogan’s wonderfully deflating take on his legacy, with lots of jokes, digs and barbs, this time around, about his role in Stan and Ollie, along with his more minor role in the first Percy Jackson film.
The landscape also plays a big role in this newfound resilience, with Winterbottom’s first really sustained used of drone shots continually emphasizing the arid fecundity, or fertile aridity, of the Greek coast, which suggests a new kind of richness when the pleasures of youth dry up. Indeed, beyond a certain point, the resilience of middle age here blends with the resilience of travel itself, since both involve a kind of on-the-go mentality – looking up facts on the fly, pretending to be an expert when you’ve only read a guide book, talking and moving just to keep things humming along. Being middle-aged and outside now feels like a peculiar form of sightseeing in and of itself, given that most of the Western world’s middle-aged population are housebound by Covid, which gives the film an additional poignancy as well.
After a while, the brightness of the sun and sea start to give way to bleakness – first when Coogan makes Brydon compete with him in a swimming contest, and then on the ferry home when Coogan’s father unexpectedly passes away. The emotional kernel of the third act occurs against the brightest, bleakest beach in the film – Voidokilia in Pylos – and ends with Coogan receiving a phone call from his son to tell him of his father’s death. That displacement – only Coogan’s son being present at his own father’s death – made me realise that the ultimate subject matter of The Trip series is coming home, and the way that process grows more complicated and displaced as we all grow older, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic.
Yet that process of coming home – and the complications of coming home – are also what makes this series so unusually affecting in its depictions of middle-aged masculinity. Once upon a time we would have called Coogan and Brydon’s experiences a mid-life crisis, but that term doesn’t really work any more – it’s too Boomer – and the series seems to sense it. Instead, Winterbottom displaces any single crisis for an ongoing apprehension of old age that’s alternatively sobering and exhilarating, but always dynamic, and always restless. In a way, it feels like this might be the last of The Trip films, since Coogan is more embedded back in English life during the third act than any film since the original. And yet these last scenes with his family feel as provisional and fluid as the rest of the series – we end just before he sees his father’s body – so hopefully there will continue to be more Trips in years to come.