Most franchises that have made it to four films have by then traipsed the galaxy, pulled off a series of daring heists or freed Willy many times over. The movies of "The Trip," however, have gotten this far almost entirely on the volition of Michael Caine impressions.
Michael Winterbottom's four "Trip" movies, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, are certainly more than that — but not much more. And that's no slight. The exceedingly low stakes of these movies are part of their appeal.
No matter how exotic the surroundings — England's Lake District, the Italian coast, Spanish countryside and now the Greek isles — there's no setting that can stop Coogan and Brydon from falling into their familiar patterns of passive aggression and one-upmanship. Emerson wrote of travel, "My giant goes with me wherever I go." For Coogan and Brydon, it's the same, only with Mick Jagger impressions. The meals may change, but the banter stays the same.
"The Trip to Greece," which premieres on digital and cable video-on-demand on Friday, is the fourth and purportedly final voyage for Brydon and Coogan. While setting off on their Greece trip, following the steps of Odysseus, they mark the passing of time — 10 years since they began. Their features are a little less sharp but they've both aged well, they agree. "You were unpalatable as a younger man," says Brydon.
"The Trip" (and their preamble of Al Pacino impressions in Winterbottom's preceding "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story") remain the best of these films. I think ever since, those of us who keep returning come hoping for a bit as good as their first volley of Caines or their glorious "Gentlemen to Bed" improv.
But that hasn't kept the sequels since from being charming even while their stars are being deliberately irritating. The set-up of "The Trip to Greece" is the same as the last ones, and likewise first ran as a six-part BBC miniseries. Coogan and Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, are conscripted to write an article about a culinary tour.
On their Grecian trip, there are occasional nods to their mythic path as well as to the world around them. There's a brief, awkward encounter with a migrant camp. But on the whole, the primary tension in "The Trip to Greece," as before, is in who can quip better, and whether their bubble of battling egos and petty jealousies can be burst by anything — or even if we want it to be. When Brydon asks Coogan what he's most proud of, Coogan doesn't hesitate. "Hmm. My seven BAFTAs," he replies.
This sun-dabbled outing brings impressions of Jagger (with claps), Dustin Hoffman, a version of "Stan Laurel and Tom Hardy" (Coogan starred in the recent "Stan and Ollie"), and, naturally, a few bars from "Grease." As always, Coogan and Brydon are comedy opposites who nevertheless speak precisely the same language.
Beneath the bickering, Winterbottom has always hinted at deeper midlife melancholia and mixed in interruptions from home. In "The Trip to Greece," Brydon has a moment of discomfort hearing that his wife is unexpectedly not at home. Coogan's father is suddenly ailing.
What I think makes the "Trip" movies so gently endearing is in how Winterbottom doesn't elevate or diminish the pointless riffs of his stars with the graver matters around them. It's all of a piece. The "Trip" movies were initially inspired by Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" follow-up, "A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy," a novel that likewise didn't differentiate between the high and low of life. Another way of saying that is: Michael Caine impressions are just as valuable as anything else.
Watching "The Trip to Greece" at a time when such travel is impossible has only heightened the considerable pleasures of these movies (and made the food all the more appetizing). But mostly it's reinforced the simple delight of sitting table-side with Coogan and Brydon. For all their trivial sparring, they are exceedingly good company.
"The Trip to Greece," an IFC Films release, isn't rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 103 minutes. Three stars out of four.