Whenever I watch one of these movies, whether it’s THE TRIP (2010), THE TRIP TO ITALY (2014), or THE TRIP TO SPAIN (2017), I’m floored by the pictures they paint of the fictionalized Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan. While Rob’s happy marriage never changes, he’s always shown in crises of self-doubt, and he always chooses to learn from them. In THE TRIP TO ITALY, it’s whether or not he believes himself as a husband, and in THE TRIP TO SPAIN it’s whether – underneath his life vest of celebrity impressions – he’s worth being taken seriously. Steve’s arcs look different: His relationships are in constant flux. His satisfaction always exceeds his grasp. After he promises his teenage son, Joe, that he’ll move back home in THE TRIP TO ITALY‘s conclusion, we never hear of it again; and when Joe can’t fly out to be with him in THE TRIP TO SPAIN, Steve’s vacant expressions tell a story of a man who needs others more than he’ll admit. Rob and Steve are more similar than they realize – both scared to be alone in a room at the end of the night, both comforted by the jokes they tell. And THE TRIP TO GREECE, in one large master stroke, finds a haunting and gorgeous way to wrap everything up.
The first thing that should be noted about THE TRIP TO GREECE is how it approaches what we expect from one of these films, even in minute one. The traditional opening – a black screen and a phone call – is gone, replaced with Rob coldly reciting the first line of The Iliad, “Sing, goddess, Achilles’ rage, black and murderous, that cost the Greeks incalculable pain, pitched countless souls of heroes into Hades dark, and left their bodies to rot as feasts for dogs and birds.” The next cut is to Steve, who mocks him – and the third shot reveals the Roman relics in front of them both. No preamble in England; they’re already gone. We’re invited to consider the mortality baked into Greek text – and we’re in close-up with two guys who’ve left their home lives to joke about who knows the words best.
Over a meal, we learn that The Observer has themed this trip to Homer’s The Iliad; Rob and Steve are retracing Odysseus’s journey from Troy (now Turkey) to Ithaca. Steve claims that Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid is a cheap rip-off of The Iliad; he goes on to describe it as the story of a Trojan who flees Troy with his family and loses his wife, but goes on to found Rome as a result. Steve, a divorced man fully immersed in Greek history as an attempt to feel valuable, should see a lot more of himself in The Aeneid – albeit his narcissistic rewrite – yet he insists on placing himself in The Iliad. Steve’s journey for the remainder of the film sees the real story of his life bubbling up to show him how wrong he is – whether through expressionistic nightmare sequences (that place Steve and his family directly in The Aeneid) or a sudden family emergency back home that threatens his game of pretend.
But in no way does THE TRIP TO GREECE abandon comedy – it also happens to be the funniest of the four (by a fraction of a hair). Steve does an impression of Ray Winstone as Henry VIII; Rob instigates a full re-enactment of the torture scene from MARATHON MAN (1976); both hit a falsetto while screeching Demis Roussos’s Forever and Ever at one other. It’s a contrived thing to say, but the competition between Rob and Steve does get better with age – where earlier films had Rob and Steve desperately wounding each other’s egos, this one treats their riffing like a martial art. They step on the mat, spar with precise moves, and bow at the end of it. THE TRIP TO GREECE doesn’t care about comparing them anymore, it wants to relish in old camaraderie before sobering them – and give each a push toward the people who’ve long deserved their attention. Michael Nyman’s always-beautiful music sits on the soundtrack like a supportive third party, begging them to grow and celebrating them when they do. Sometimes the music even swells above Rob and Steve’s banter, obscuring the jokes as if to say that – though funny – they’re wearing thin as distractions from personal change. It’s too close to the end of the road.
Going into any more detail would mean spoilers, so I’ll wrap up now, but one more thing: Steve has never been shown really hugging anyone in these movies – at least beyond a casual greeting or for more than a few seconds. Here, though, we get a few extremely tender shots of Steve being embraced – his head resting on someone’s shoulder as they stay wrapped around him. It startled me. I thought back on the whole series, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed Steve’s overwhelming lack of onscreen intimacy. But here was an image of Steve being held for once. It was like seeing someone in the fetal position – letting go of all learned behavior to feel taken care of again. It made me cry.
When THE TRIP TO SPAIN came out, I honestly considered it my dream-come-true conclusion to this series. For me, that was the last page – book shut – but THE TRIP TO GREECE is a conclusion I couldn’t have begun to dream of. Thank you, Michael Winterbottom.