Ten years ago, when the first installment of Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip was released, the “bromance” was near its peak. The bromance featured dysfunctional men floundering in their love lives and careers and finding solace in each other. These movies, epitomized by a string of megahits directed by Judd Apatow in the 2000s, portrayed men hanging onto childhood, with adulthood often represented by the expectations of women. (Apatow’s directorial debut was The 40-Year-Old Virgin.) The male friendship of the bromance was transcendent in its authenticity. It was also a fantasy, exaggerating the bonds of friendship in the same way that romantic comedies obsessed over love.
The Trip movies are frequently tagged as bromances. But can you have a buddy comedy if the two lead actors don’t even seem to like one another? Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play versions of themselves, as they undertake culinary excursions to England, Italy, Spain, and, in the latest and supposedly final installment, Greece. Nothing much happens in these movies. Over the course of a week, they travel from restaurant to restaurant, inn to inn, sometimes discussing art and history, but mostly doing impressions of other celebrities. They also bicker, albeit in a way that is so passive-aggressive (or, perhaps more accurately, so British) that it barely registers as conflict. There are crises along the way, and the scenery changes, but these four films are basically the same thing over and over: two guys eating fancy food and talking.
There is an unexpected poignancy to all this repetition. The impressions are mostly the same, although The Trip to Greece only has a dash of Coogan and Brydon doing their most famous bit, dueling impressions of Michael Caine. (The Trip franchise has given a whole new meaning to the line “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”) And over so many hours of film, stretched out over a decade, their on-screen relationship has come far closer than other bromances in depicting what male friendship is really like.
Asked by Brydon early in The Trip to Greece to name his proudest accomplishment, Coogan replies, “Uh, probably my seven Baftas,” referring to the British entertainment awards that are a mashup of the Oscars and the Emmys. “For me, it would be my children,” Brydon replies. Coogan hits back: “Well, you haven’t got any Baftas!”
The Trip movies have gotten a lot of mileage out of that joke. Coogan is pretentious, megalomaniacal, and keen on being taken seriously as an actor. He is also deeply unhappy: divorced, struggling to keep up with the younger women he dates. Brydon is a middlebrow comic whose show plays well to older audiences in Britain, but he is happy, a contented family man. The humor of their impressions comes not just from the fact that they are both extraordinary mimics, but from what it reveals about their relationship. Coogan clearly wants to think of himself as being above “doing silly voices,” but he is too competitive and self-important to let Brydon think he can do a better Al Pacino. (For the record, he can’t.)
Other things do happen in these films. The first is defined by Coogan’s existential crisis, brought on by a breakup. The second revolves around Brydon’s midlife crisis, which results in an affair with a younger woman. Nothing much happens in the third until Coogan is, on an expedition through North Africa, apparently kidnapped by the Islamic State. (This is not addressed in the fourth film but is explained away as a misunderstanding in the television version, which is broadcast on the BBC and has a longer running time.) In The Trip to Greece, Coogan’s father falls seriously ill as Coogan and Brydon travel through Greece and Turkey. These bare semblances of plot are reflected in the accompanying reading material of each movie—the Romantic poets in the first two films, Cervantes (himself kidnapped by Barbary pirates) in the third, and Homeric epic poetry in the fourth.
Unlike most franchises, there is no need to up the stakes—this is not The Fast and The Furious, and no one expects a Trip to Space. “As you get older, it’s inevitable, you repeat yourself. This is the fourth time we’ve been on one of these jaunts,” Brydon tells Coogan. “Originality is overrated. Everything is derivative of something‚ the greatest poem of the Roman Empire was derivative!” Coogan responds, referring to The Aeneid.
So there are old favorites. Impressions of Roger Moore, Marlon Brando, Mutiny on the Bounty. An attempt at dueling Dustin Hoffmans fizzles but is more than made up for when both do Mick Jagger, a highlight of the previous film. The funniest moment comes when Coogan does cockney tough guy Ray Winstone as Henry VIII musing about Anne Boleyn, while Brydon plays a trembling courtier who keeps having to insist he’s “not a nonce.”
There is not much character development in any individual movie, but Coogan and Brydon do change over the course of the series. Coogan is still self-important but is now sober and a little mellower. The chipper Brydon, recommitted to his family after his infidelities in the second installment, is enjoying greater professional success. And what is most surprising about the fourth film is that they genuinely seem to have become friends. Maybe it’s just because this is supposedly the last time they’ll do one of these. But maybe it’s because, in spite of themselves, they’ve actually started to enjoy one another’s company.
Contemporary politics butts in from time to time. At the start of the film, Coogan encounters a refugee who asks for a ride to the camp where he lives. Brydon and Coogan express horror at the conditions—the camp’s residents have been there for a decade, as long as they’ve been doing these films. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson—a reality TV star and the mayor of London, respectively, when the first The Trip debuted—also pop up. Like the intrusions of familial responsibilities, these are awkward reminders of the world outside the hotels and restaurants that Coogan and Brydon fritter away their time in.
Important things are happening. Most of life, however, is not spent doing important things. It’s spent doing nothing much at all: eating, bantering, seeing who can do the best impression of Tom Hardy. And that’s alright: Male friendship, like daily life, can be soothing in its banality.
The fact that the film is being released in the midst of a global pandemic that has decimated the restaurant industry adds an unexpected pathos. Though I rarely go to the kinds of Michelin-starred restaurants frequented by Coogan and Brydon, I would pay those prices for the privilege of sitting somewhere, anywhere, with anyone, for a couple of hours. It doesn’t even have to be someone I like that much.