Movie Review: Once more, into the breech — “The Trip to Greece”

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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite for one more comic travelogue in “The Trip to Greece,” retracing the steps of the mythical Odysseus in a land steeped in history.

As indeed are our co-stars — retracing ancient steps and an ancient relationship. That’s the joke these four “Trip” movies — the long-standing, easy-going (sort of) hate-love relationship that’s developed over the decades between the relatively famous but insecure funnyman Coogan (“Philomena,” the recent “Greed,” filmed in Greece) and the less-famous, needier and “always on” Brydon (“Blinded by the Light,” “Swimming with Men”).

They first worked together (and with director Michael Winterbottom) on “24 Hour Party People,” Coogan’s first big break in film when it came out in 2002. Brydon also appeared on one of Coogan’s Alan Partridge TV series (Coogan played a hapless, self-important and downwardly mobile chat show host, then DJ, etc.). But it was their semi-improvised rapport-rivalry on Winterbottom’s hilarious “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” (2005) that inspired Winterbottom to pair them up for these travelogues.

Put two funny, competitive comics — with egos and a rich store of celebrity impersonations at their their disposal — in a Land Rover, Mini Cooper or what have you, and send them on “a newspaper travel assignment” to The Lake District of Britain (“The Trip”), and later to Italy and Spain.

They eat, drive, experience relationship or personal crises as they travel from one tony hotel/4-star eatery to the next, bickering and mimicking and competing along the way.

That lengthy prologue feels necessary on this review because that “history,” invented basically for the cameras, is THE running gag in these films, the thing that makes them hilarious to the initiated.

If you don’t know that history or don’t like the prickly Coogan or exhausting Brydon, this isn’t for you. There isn’t enough scenery and history (and there’s a bit) to make this a proper travelogue, even though it is scenic and is historic and there may have been more of “that” in the TV version of this decade of British TV specials-turned-into-feature films for the international market.

I find them hilarious, and I think this fourth and “final” outing in their “trilogy” is the funniest since the first.

The “odyssey” they set out on barely holds their attention as they bring an “Innocents Abroad” disdain to overly-ruined ruins, straight off.

“There’s not to lot to see here, when you think about it.”

They begin in Troy, in Turkey, and trek to Ithaca by sailboat and Land Rover, ferry, on foot and even swimming as they visit the Temple at Delphi, Nestor’s Palace, Pylos, Lesbos, Stagira and the Caves of Diros.

The jokes kick in with a recognition of Coogan’s recent (mild) success playing Stan Laurel in the “Laurel & Hardy” bio-pic. We’re treated to his impish Laurel and Brydon’s wheezing Batman villain Bane in in a “Laurel and TOM Hardy” gag.

The dinner table banter devolves into dueling Roger Moores, Sean Connerys and Dustin Hoffmans, Brydon (a better mimic in most cases) “casting” Coogan as they do.

“Try it AGAIN Steve. I REALLY want you for this part.”

The obligatory reference to the role that Coogan used to worry (in “Tristram Shandy” AND “The Trip” films) would be all he’s remembered for is a shouted “A-HAAA,” Alan Partridge’s signature sign-on. Yes, even in Greece he gets that.

But as they remember Lord Byron’s most proud moment, swimming the Hellespont, Coogan’s left that fear behind.

“Thing you’re most proud of…?”

“My SEVEN BAFTAs (British Oscar/Emmy prizes)!”

“I think the thing I’m most proud of would be my children…”

“Because you don’t have ANY BAFTAs, do you?”

And on and on it goes, Brydon intoning poetry and snippets of “The Odyssey” (or maybe the Roman epic “The Aeneid”) in what he insists is Sir Anthony Hopkins’ voice, but which sounds more like Richard Burton.

They riff through “Mutiny on the Bounty,” make male member “salami” jokes about the naval Battle of Salamis,” and reach for a Bond villain baritone, or Roger Moore as James Bond, every chance either of them gets.

“I think, Mr. Bond, you enjoy staying in the Hotel Lesbos as much as I!”

The little jab of “reality” here is Coogan’s updates from back home about a “Damien Chazelle film” that he’s up for, and the health of his dying father. Brydon, the more settled family man (unlike in one earlier “Trip”), is angling to get his wife (Rebecca Johnson) to fly over and join him after the “assignment.”

That “Who is happier?” contrast has merely to be suggested, as it has been a subtext of all their films. Is the “star” content, or is it the minor star/settled family man?

Coogan revives his “stop motion animation” and “dubbed soundtrack” tricks, Brydon his infamous “little man in a box” voice.

And there’s singing, because of course there is. Here, it’s a definitive rendition of a certain British Olympics film’s title tune, as well as a debate on the falsetto merits of the vocal stylings of Frankie Valli and Barry Gibb.

“Grease is the time, is the place, is the motion
Grease is the way we are feeling…”

Because what else would Rob Brydon hear in his head when Steve Coogan offers him a free trip to the birthplace of Western Civilization?

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Johnson, Claire Keelan, Kareem Alkabbani

Directed by Michael Winterbottom, An IFC films release.

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