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Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip to Spain. Photo: IFC Films

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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Trip movies dig deep into the anxieties of travel

Their adventures in angst are a sure cure for wanderlust

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Part of the appeal of travel movies and shows is the way they let the audience travel vicariously. At its best, travel entertainment can be educational, teaching viewers about places they haven’t been and cultures that might be foreign to them. But an undeniable draw is still the chance to admire beautiful scenery and plan to go there someday — or at least feel like you’re there, now that the COVID-19 pandemic has made leaving home such a safety risk. One travel series may actually help curb that sense of wanderlust, though: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s The Trip.

The two actors, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, have now starred in four Trip movies, each edited together from six-episode TV series. 2010’s The Trip took them around the north of England, while 2014’s The Trip to Italy, 2017’s The Trip to Spain, and the new and final installment, The Trip to Greece, all have self-explanatory names. On each trip, Coogan and Brydon take a restaurant tour, passing through beautiful scenery and dining on mouth-watering food. If anything, the series should make travel irresistible.

But Coogan, Brydon, and director Michael Winterbottom actually pull off something more impressive: They make the trips seem fun, but also sad, frustrating, and even lonely. Traveling doesn’t solve the problems Coogan and Brydon are dealing with in their home lives. A vacation may be an attempt to take a break from personal issues, but there’s no way to completely leave them behind. Their troubles may be worlds away from viewers’, as their lives as successful actors are hardly normal, but they become accessible through their open portrayals. The honesty Winterbottom captures about the problems of celebrities — who should theoretically be so well off that they wouldn’t have a care in the world — and their more domestic worries, such as providing for their families or finding work, aren’t that far removed from the average person’s concerns.

The most commonly referenced element of the Trip movies are Coogan and Brydon’s dueling impressions of figures ranging from Michael Caine to the Batman villain Bane. However, Winterbottom also uses these trips to dig deeper, using the two actors’ journeys through historical landmarks as a pretext for them to interrogate their own mortality. Coogan is unmarried and free to become romantically entangled abroad (he’s seen both attempting to and succeeding in currying the favor of women he meets), but he struggles to connect with his children and to combat feelings of impermanence. Brydon is happily married, and can’t go as wild as Coogan does while traveling, but he has an anchor in his family.

The two of them also want to be taken more seriously, not just seen as comedians. As they travel, they deal with that desire in different ways. Coogan constantly refers to his Oscar-nominated script for the 2013 film Philomena to prove his success, but finds that nobody cares much about it. His profile hasn’t risen much at all in the seven years since that movie: His calls to his agent about new work get redirected to an assistant. Brydon, who hasn’t done as much dramatic work, reassures himself with the fact that he’s achieved stability, and that his legacy will be carried on through his children. Under Winterbottom’s direction, the pair’s comic stylings often give way to such introspection, and moments of silence and solitude.

Even though they’re on the most marvelous trips imaginable, it’s clear that scenic vistas and haute cuisine alone aren’t enough to make Coogan and Brydon feel fulfilled. Their problems don’t magically go away because they’re abroad, and though they get along, they sometimes bristle at each other, too, as is almost inevitable when traveling with company. (For a more explicit, condensed version of the lessons they’re expressing, try the recent Saturday Night Live sketch where Adam Sandler plays an exhausted tour-company host: “If you’re sad where you are, and then you get on a plane to Italy, the you in Italy will be the same sad you from before, just in a new place.”)

Watching the movies is a delight, though. Each installment of the series feels like checking in on old friends, if your old friends were two of the sharpest comedians alive. The rapport between Coogan and Brydon is so genuine — they’re already so invested in each other — that the audience becomes a third guest on the trips rather than a voyeur. That feeling of inclusion and closeness makes the usual vicarious experience of a travel series even more potent. During a global pandemic, however, that ability to travel along with the hosts is a blessing for a different reason.

As appealing as being anywhere but home might seem right now, it’s reassuring to remember that traveling has its ups and downs, too. The Trip movies capture that balance through the (new and pre-existing) crises that the fictionalized versions of Coogan and Brydon experience. Winterbottom never goes so far as to make traveling seem abjectly awful — who wouldn’t want to escape to a beach right now, if it could be done safely? — but he makes it clear that no getaway will be completely perfect, either. As the wait for a coronavirus vaccine stretches on, the reminder that something that seems like a perfect reprieve has its flaws, too, comes as a relief.

The Trip to Greece will be available on VOD on May 22.

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