“I think it’s inevitable, as you get older, you repeat yourself.” So says Rob Brydon, playing Rob Brydon, to Steve Coogan, playing Steve Coogan, in “The Trip to Greece.” They ought to know. This is the fourth time the two British actors have hit the filmic road together, following “The Trip” (to England’s Lake District, 2010), “The Trip to Italy” (2014), and “The Trip to Spain” (2017).
There’s a formula. Rob and Steve will have a freelance journalism assignment that’s vaguely literary. In this case, it’s to follow Odysseus’s 10 years of wandering and do it in six days. They eat fabulous meals. They drive through travelogue-spectacular scenery. They engage in constant one-upmanship. Thin as the line is between love and hate, thinner still is the one between banter and bicker.
The most delightful form the competitiveness takes is dueling impersonations. They can be as spectacular as the scenery. Standbys return: Richard Burton, Brando as Don Corleone. Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery. Newly unveiled are Alan Bennett, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Werner Herzog, Barry Gibb (singing, of course), Ray Winstone, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Godzilla, and, yes, Steve Coogan.
That’s Brydon, as is the most baroque impersonation: Tom Hardy as Bane (in “The Dark Knight Rises”) doing Stan Laurel. Or maybe the most baroque is Steve and Rob’s duet on the “Chariots of Fire” theme. So often in these movies the question is why. Here there’s an answer: “Vangelis is Greek,” Rob reminds Steve.
The chemistry between them is unusual but unmistakable. Steve is slightly lugubrious and overly sensitive, Rob ebulliently relaxed and happy to play dumb. Both are self-involved, but that particular duel Coogan wins easily. He’s vain and neurotic and knows it. Brydon knows it, too, which makes it easier for him to accept the role of second banana (Steve does all the driving, figuratively as well as literally). Their friendship makes perfect sense to us, if not necessarily to them.
Michael Winterbottom, the director, keeps things moving. Like the previous films, “The Trip to Greece” is a condensed version of a six-part BBC series. The condensation makes for a brisk pace and sometimes-abrupt rhythm. To prevent Steve and Rob’s back-and-forth from overwhelming everything else, Winterbottom has several tricks. He cuts during restaurant table talk to what’s going on in the kitchen (don’t watch this movie hungry). There are frequent calls to loved ones and agents back in England (will Coogan get that part in a new Damien Chazelle movie?). We even see a few of Steve’s nightmares (not a good idea).
Subplots involve Steve and Rob’s “families,” with the family members played by actors. It’s a reminder that the two actors are playing themselves rather than presenting themselves. The fourth wall here is like a Greek ruin: not intact, but still standing.
A photo shoot where Steve and Rob pose with the masks of comedy and tragedy portends a very sad episode at journey’s end, but it’s an earned and natural sadness. What makes Steve and Rob so funny is that they’re so human: petty, insecure, rivalrous, as well as charming and hilarious. Nothing’s more human than sadness, not even laughter, and laughter “The Trip to Greece” has to offer in plenty. What’s their next destination? Wherever it is, the important thing is that there be one.
THE TRIP TO GREECE
Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon. Available for rental on cable systems and streaming-video platforms. 103 minutes. Unrated (as R: occasional outbursts of profanity when gangsters are being imitated)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.