DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "The Trip To Greece" is the fourth and final comedy - after "The Trip," "The Trip To Italy" and "The Trip To Spain" - to follow the actor-comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on a conversation-filled food and wine tour through a European country. It begins streaming today on most major video-on-demand services. Our film critic Justin Chang says the movie will either satisfy or inflame your wanderlust, and he recommends it either way.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: At a time when many of us are staying home, with no plans to travel farther than the nearest grocery store, watching "The Trip To Greece" might seem like either a lovely escape or an exquisite form of torture. The movie, or rather the original six-episode TV series it was edited down from, was shot before the COVID-19 pandemic. And so much of what we see - tourists climbing aboard ferry boats and sharing meals in Michelin-starred restaurants - plays like a time capsule from a world that has temporarily ceased to exist. Viewer envy is par for the course with any good cinematic travelogue. But "The Trip To Greece" didn't just make me jealous. It left me feeling weirdly bereft. I enjoyed the ride anyway. And you probably will, too. If you've seen any of the earlier trip movies, you'll know what to expect.
The actor-comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing coyly fictionalized versions of themselves, have already wined and dined their way through England's Lake District, Italy and Spain. This time, they're starting in Turkey and making their way through Greece, spending six days retracing Odysseus' famous voyage home. As usual, one of them is filing freelance dining reviews for a newspaper, which explains the many stops at high-end eateries, where every amuse-bouche is as lovingly photographed as the scenery. But if you come for the gorgeous food and landscapes, you stay for the quick-witted banter and the virtuoso celebrity impersonations. As usual, Coogan and Brydon live to perform. And their never-ending one-upsmanship is what makes them such enjoyable, if also exhausting, company. Coogan, the BAFTA-winning actor from movies like "Philomena" and "Stan & Ollie," is the bigger star of the two, and therefore the bigger target. Brydon, a saucy sidekick, clearly enjoys puncturing his friend's thin skin. At one point, he flatters Coogan by telling him he's starting to look like Richard Gere, then turns around and dings him for lapping up the compliment.
Still, 10 years have passed since the first trip. And both men, now in their 50s, are starting to mellow with age. They seem a bit more willing to enjoy each other's company and even laugh at each other's jokes, as Coogan does when Brydon goes off on a bizarre, extended riff over a Mediterranean lunch.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRIP TO GREECE")
ROB BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) It doesn't help that we're under a tree. Insects love to be under trees. You know why?
STEVE COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan) Yeah. You know, I went out on my land recently...
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) Yeah.
COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan) ...To sit under a tree.
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) Thirty-six acres, isn't it?
COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan) Thirty-eight. And I went to sit under a tree just to...
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) To think?
COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan) Well, no, no...
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) Just to think?
COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan) No, no. To read a book actually. I put a blanket down just because, you know, this tree. And I sat under it and started to read. And there was a fly started hovering over my head. So...
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) That'll happen. Yeah.
COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan) So I just got up and just went back in the house. I had this idea that it would be...
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) Steve Coogan, ladies and gentlemen. Wonderful stories from Steve.
COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan, laughter).
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) And there'll be more from him at the same time next week. He must do that one about the flies under the tree. I mean, it's wonderful stuff. A friend said he saw you at a large tavern doing that and had the room in the palm of his hand. That's what he said. Wonderful story.
CHANG: I wasn't crazy about Coogan and Brydon's previous outing, "The Trip To Spain." The comedy sometimes curdled into sourness. And the actors' back-and-forth seemed to reach a dead end. But "The Trip To Greece" is an altogether pleasant return to form. The jokes are sharper and tighter. And those impersonations are especially first-rate. Sadly, neither man trots out Michael Caine this time around. Though, we do get Sean Connery, Mick Jagger and an especially inspired Dustin Hoffman. Early on, Brydon fittingly quotes from Aristotle's "Poetics" - "imitation comes naturally to human beings, and so does the universal pleasure in imitation." It isn't the only classic text that gets referenced here. After all, Coogan and Brydon are basically living their own version of "The Odyssey," establishing a resonant metaphor about the journeys we take out into the world and the journeys that lead us back home.
There's always been a glimmer of melancholy beneath the idyllic surface of these movies. We've seen these characters deal with setbacks in their careers and relationships, usually on the sidelines, in between sips of wine and bites of haute cuisine. Futility and disappointment are nothing new for them. But "The Trip To Greece" gets at something even more painful and direct, a sense of encroaching mortality. Coogan's dad is in poor health, which may be why he's been having strange, troubling nightmares. Other real-world concerns undercut the blissful mood. On the island of Lesbos, Coogan runs into an actor he appeared with years ago and gives him a ride to the nearby refugee camp where he now works, a moment that throws their privileged existence into stark relief. Given the present state of the world, it's easy enough to sneer at that privilege.
But "The Trip To Greece" doesn't scold our heroes for their extravagances. And it doesn't scold us for enjoying them vicariously. This is a movie that knows that pleasure can be a vital consolation in times of suffering. But it also knows that pleasure is often all too fleeting. Coogan and Brydon have said this will be their last trip. And if so, they found a perfect, poignant note on which to end. But personally, I hope we haven't seen the last of this squabbling, endearing duo - or heard the last of their Michael Caine.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show - as we celebrate Memorial Day amid the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, we look at a renowned 20th-century statesman who led his nation at a time of peril, Winston Churchill. We talk with historian Erik Larson, whose new book focuses on Churchill's first year in office, when Britain endured a ferocious bombing campaign by the Nazis. Larson says Churchill told his citizens the truth and inspired them to resist. The book is called "The Splendid And The Vile." Hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "LA VIE EN ROSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.