Set aside the fact that present circumstances may make viewers resentful of a film motivated by its makers’ urge to see exotic tourist destinations and eat in expensive restaurants that are closed now. The format of Michael Winterbottom’s Trip series, in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take luxurious foodie vacations together, has served up various pleasures for moviegoers in the past, and there was no way of knowing how tone-deaf it might appear upon its mid-lockdown release. So let’s imagine his The Trip to Greece, the fourth such film, came out back when the worst thing you could say about Corona was that it was probably the worst beverage option in any given Mexican restaurant.
Even under the best circumstances, an admirer of this series would have to conclude that Greece is a return to a now-dry well, in which no ingredient — pleasantly competitive banter, food, settings, fictionalized plotlines — comes close to being as enjoyable as it was even in the third film, much less its predecessor, 2014’s series-best The Trip to Italy. This is a lazy feature with few laughs and fewer vicarious travel thrills, despite some nice photography of craggy coastlines and ancient villages.
The once-entertaining series has run out of steam.
Dropping straight into the voyage, Winterbottom listens as Coogan explains the agenda: He and Brydon will roughly follow the path Ulysses took in The Odyssey, starting in Turkey at the site of the Trojan war and winding up in Ithaca. Ferries aside, they’ll cover most of the ground in a posh SUV Coogan insists on driving, leaving Brydon feeling emasculated. (As if Coogan’s numerous references to his shelf full of BAFTAs hadn’t already done that job. Brydon kindly avoids asking how many Oscars he’s won.)
They’ll eat at a half-dozen destination restaurants along the way, but Winterbottom is remarkably uninterested in sharing that experience with us. We occasionally glimpse a dish in the kitchen as chefs prepare it, but there are nearly no shots of food on the table, and only the most fleeting descriptions. The only time the camera seems to care about anything in a restaurant, in fact, is when a waitress in one cliffside establishment looks nice in shorts: Winterbottom watches her walk from kitchen to table four times. Even his stars, who are trying not to look desperate to charm a woman half their age, aren’t as obvious.
In the absence of gustatory value, these dining scenes are interchangeable with those in the car, relying on the pleasure of watching two sharp-witted actors try to make each other laugh. As in three previous films (and the related Tristram Shandy), this often entails mimicking other actors; sadly, they seem to have run out of good material. That’s not to say the two aren’t funny. But of their riffing impressions, only one — Coogan imagining Ray Winstone as a cockney Henry VIII — lives up to those in earlier outings.
In between meals, the men test their knowledge of history while touring ancient sites. But the film rarely deigns to tell us where we are, and its attitude toward ruins is well summed up by Brydon in the opening scene: Looking at rock buildings that have mostly crumbled, he shrugs that there’s really not much here to see.
As for the little bits of fictionalized home life and family drama that Winterbottom scatters through the Trip movies, this outing is the least compelling of them all, despite potential resonance with real life. Winterbottom’s father died around the time of the last film, and by the time this one was produced, Coogan’s had as well. But a storyline in which the fictional Coogan gets phone calls about his sick father, who’s being tended to by Coogan’s son, is half-hearted at best.
That conceit does, at least, give the movie an overt nod toward closure. Press notes report that this will be “the fourth AND FINAL installment” of the series. It’s hard to guess whether the notes’ author intended those all-caps words to be comic. To admirers of the filmmaker and his cast who hope for something fresh, their emphatic nature will likely come as a relief.
Production companies: Revolution Films, Baby Cow, Small Man
Distributor: IFC Films (Available Friday on digital and VOD)
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Marta Barrio
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Producers: Melissa Parmenter, Josh Hyams
Executive producers: Arianna Bocco, Paul Wiegard, Tristan Whalley
Director of photography: James Clarke
Costume designer: Carla Monvid-Jenkinson
Editor: Marc Richardson