Toward the end of “The Trip to Greece,” British comic Rob Brydon (playing a version of himself) is talking to his wife (played by an actress who is not his wife) about the trip he’s just taken with his old pal and sparring partner Steve Coogan.
“Is it all fun and games?” she asks.
“No,” he says. “It’s mostly fun and games.”
And that’s a good way to describe “The Trip to Greece,” as well as the three other movies that Brydon and Coogan have made with director Michael Winterbottom. In 2011’s “The Trip,” 2014’s “The Trip to Italy,” 2017’s “The Trip to Spain” and now “The Trip to Greece,” the two men drive around a beautiful location, eat fabulous meals, talk about stuff and try to make each other laugh, often with dueling impersonations. And yes, it’s mostly fun and games.
It’s a modest, simple approach, and one that has remained consistently pleasing for all four movies. And if “Greece” is the end of the “Trip” saga, as all involved say it will be, it’s a satisfying and even touching way to wrap up a decade-long demonstration of the proposition that all it takes is conversation to be entertaining.
All four of the films began as six-episode British television series, which were then edited down to features for the U.S. audience. (This one was meant to receive a theatrical release, but IFC shifted to a VOD one because of the coronavirus.) And all four rely on Coogan and Brydon playing heightened versions of themselves — more competitive with each other, less secure (especially Coogan) and more argumentative about just about everything.
The location changes, but the format doesn’t; as Coogan declares early in this film, “Originality is overrated. Everything is derivative.”
“The Trip to Greece” is more of a trip through Greece — it starts in northwest Turkey, on the site of what was once Troy, and then follows the path that Odysseus takes in “The Odyssey,” passing through Hydra, Athens and Delphi on the way to what used to be Ithaca. Coogan and Brydon make the journey in six days rather than the 10 years that Odysseus took, and they don’t stop along the way to battle a giant cyclops or be tempted by the Sirens.
Instead, they chat about history and about this slightly alternative version of their lives in which Coogan is desperate to be cast in a Damien Chazelle movie (he even cried in the audition!) and Brydon loses no opportunity to mock his more famous friend, who also insists on driving every time they get in a car.
When Coogan brings up his recent film “Stan and Ollie,” in which he played comic Stan Laurel, Brydon nods approvingly. “I watched it on a BAFTA screener,” he says. “I only paused it three times to go to the kitchen.” This prompts a dinner-table version of Laurel and Hardy in which it’s Stan Laurel and Tom Hardy, who is of course as unintelligible as ever.
There’s less emphasis on impersonations than in past installments — no dueling Michael Caines this time around, though we do get dueling Dustin Hoffmans and Mick Jaggers, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger morphing into Werner Herzog and Ray Winstone as Henry VIII.
As they make their way through often-desultory ruins to world-class restaurants, we also hear a lot of the Bee Gees from Brydon, who mocks performing CPR to the beat of “Staying Alive” (“Steve’s Gonna Die” in his version), sings “Tragedy” on one car ride and makes an extended set-piece out of the Barry Gibb-penned title song from “Grease” on another leg. (It’s pretty funny and not very good, which is more charitable than what you’d say about the horrendous version of Greek singer Demis Roussos’ “Forever and Ever” that both men sing.)
All of these moments, filmed casually by Winterbottom with sporadic cutaways to scenic vistas and four-star kitchens, are reminders of what fun traveling companions Coogan and Brydon can be — not necessarily to each other, but certainly to an audience with a taste for British comics who rarely stop trying to one-up each other.
When they do stop, it’s often because a touch of outside plot intervenes. When he and Brydon arrive in Greece, Coogan runs into Kareem Alkabbani, a real-life actor he worked with in Winterbottom’s “Greed,” who asks for a ride to the refugee camp where he’s working. There’s no more to the sequence than them dropping Alkabbani off at a camp encircled by barbed wire, but it plays as if Winterbottom and the actors felt it would be tone-deaf to follow Odysseus’ path without pointing out that it’s also the site of an ongoing humanitarian crisis.
(It’s also probably a better way to deal with real life than ending “The Trip to Spain” with Coogan apparently on the verge of being kidnapped by ISIS, a cliffhanger that goes unmentioned here except in passing.)
And in the homestretch of the film, a more personal crisis intrudes with the death of Coogan’s father. In the movie, he learns about this toward the end of the trip on a phone conversation with a fictional son; in truth, Coogan’s father died in 2018, before the film was made. It feels odd, using moments from real life to give gravity to a film built around comic performances, but the “Trip” movies have always dropped in unusual and sometimes uncomfortable touches.
It also picks up on the “Odyssey” theme of returning home, and makes the final moments more emotional than you’d expect — both for Coogan and for Brydon, who is joined by his wife. (Well, an actress playing his wife.) These moments are lovely and touching, aided immeasurably by the use of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” on the soundtrack. Winterbottom also uses music by Philip Glass, Michael Nyman and Richard Strauss, among others; he likes serious music to go with his funny movies.
As an ending to a series of films that even out-talked Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise”/”Before Sunset”/”Before Midnight” trilogy, this final sequence brings things home on a beautifully bittersweet note. Of course, words like beautiful and bittersweet aren’t really what we go to the “Trip” movies to see. Fun and games are.