Thursday, June 10, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

Early in Get Him to the Greek, an unlikely spin-off of Apatow Productions' most emotionally rewarding feature to date, Forgetting Sarah Marhsall, writer/director Nicholas Stoller gives the impression that he will fashion his comedy into a commentary on the changing musical landscape. Aaron Green (Jonah Hill), an intern for Pinnacle Records, eloquently posits Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), the notorious rocker ported over from FSM, as the last remaining rock star in an industry defined by derivative acts whose sound is entirely made of samples and thumping beats. Green's boss considers this, then promptly plays one of those unoriginal hip-hop acts filled with misogynistic lyrics that do not rhyme so much as repeat the same words over and over.

The film never returns to this idea, though perhaps it was just too busy. Get Him to the Greek is This Is Spinal Tap from the perspective of one of those terrified label representatives sent to make sure a failing artist gets to gigs of decreasing quantity and venue size. Green, who largely resembles Hill's obsessive Aldous Snow fan in Forgetting Sarah Marshall with a name and location overhaul, manages to sell Pinnacle's head honcho, Sergio (Sean Combs), on the idea of a comeback for Aldous. The human interest story alone would generate attention and revenue: we first see Snow in flashback, tumbling from the top of the charts with one clunker of an album, a bad break-up with tarty pop starlet Jackie Q (Rose Byrne) and a relapse into substance abuse. Confined to his roomy London flat when not pub crawling (which takes place for the entirety of local pubs' hours of operations), Snow agrees to perform a show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his legendary show there. For unclear reasons, Sergio trusts that a plush toy like Aaron can wrangle the most infamous, egotistical addict in the biz, and the mogul sends the geeky fan to drag Snow to New York for a morning show appearance before heading to L.A. for the gig.

What then follows is a screwball comedy in the style of the buddy film. As much as Get Him to the Greek immediately shuts off its brain to become a zany, episodic free-for-all, one understands why Stoller was content to just stick with Hill and Brand: the two have worked previously as supporting characters, Hill as the coiled spring à la Jason Lee, Brand, well, as rock star Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, as well as playing opposite Adam Sandler in Bedtime Stories (his stock is considerably higher back in native Britain, where he's a top comedian and, until a recent controversy, a radio and television presenter). One look at the two paired together, however, and you see what Stoller must have seen: comedy gold. Rarely has an odd couple been so well contrasted physically: Brand, with his recovering addict wire frame and cheekbones to rival Cate Blanchett's, stands tall over Hill, with a chin that has now become his neck and sporting thin, wispy adolescent stubble to Brand's kempt beard.

Hill, normally the manic friend who gets all the good one-liners, must now assume the role of straight man, which he does effortlessly. There's a subtlety to his performance even when being sucked into Snow's underworld of excess, boozed out of his mind and often pasted with his own vomit. Unsure whether or not his girlfriend, Daphne (Elisabeth Moss), broke up with him after he did not agree to her plans to move the two to Seattle for her to work in a quieter hospital than the one in L.A., Aaron constantly waffles between venting his hurt and trying to preserve his relationship, though at times it appears as if God is attempting to make this idiot cheat.

Brand, meanwhile, is left to play up his own rock star persona, which he does with greater abandon than in Snow's previous filmic appearance, which showed him still on the wagon even if he did still try to sleep with anything with an accommodating cavity. As a comic -- hell, as a human being -- Brand clearly wants to capture some of the rocker aesthetic and aura, so he takes to this role with relish. What we see with his character is a Spinal Tap for the post-reality show era; as far as we know, Aldous never wound up on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! or Big Brother, but he lives in a world that now jockeys more than ever to get a look at failure. When Sergio preps Aaron before dispatch and tells him that people want to see Snow "fucked up, but not too fucked up," the comedy of the scene is undercut by a nagging suspicion that such lines are too accurate to be satiric. Thus, Snow gets carted onto the set of the Today Show -- one of the film's funniest sequences, as Aaron attempts to send the rocker in as straight as possible by consuming all the alcohol and drugs in the limo -- to be poked fun even by someone like Meredith Vieira for being a train wreck. In retrospect, at least Spinal Tap

Numerous rock clichés make some sort of appearance: the record that kills Aldous' career is a soulless, crass attempt to latch onto the dire living conditions in Africa whilst promoting the rocker's magnanimous contribution (the phrase "white African Christ from space" will line surprisingly well to a number of condescending pop artists whose hearts may be in the right place but who also donate only a fraction of their album and tour revenues to the continent that "inspired" their work); Jackie Q's solo work consists of a series of auto-tuned pop songs that move from openly suggestive to flat out declarative in their innuendo; Aldous' father is an abusive leech, trying to claim credit for his son's genius by virtue of having sired him.

As a piss-take on the music business, Get Him to the Greek doesn't go to the same lengths as another Apatow Production, Walk Hard, but the gags here contain an undercurrent of actual humanity. Aldous gives a candid, blunt speech about the appeal of drugs to Aaron, yet the scene does not suspend the humor as one of the two is sitting with a balloon of heroin wedged in an uncomfortable hiding location to get through an airport. Brand's own history with numerous substances of his own gives a great deal of his behavior, no matter how outlandish, a bedrock of verisimilitude, and a haunted look passes his eyes at times that may well not be an act but a recognition of a past life. When Aaron finally snaps at his hero and says that the man is genuinely smart but only uses his intelligence to romanticize his pathetic self-destruction, we can't be sure whether Hill is speaking to Aldous Snow or to Brand himself.

Sadly, moments like these fall to the wayside in favor of a contrite ending that attempts to piece Aaron and Daphne's relationship back together through an outlandish sequence that works not as a legitimate resolution, a sensible progression of a plot even as crazy as the one seen here, nor as a piece of comedy. The otherwise magnificent Forgetting Sarah Marshall suffered a similar problem, building up its titular ex-girlfriend into someone actually deserving of empathy and compassion only to be brutally shot down at the end to get quickly to a finale with the "new girl," though Get Him to the Greek never bothers to build Daphne into a fleshed-out character, and her only significant action occurs near the end.

Setting aside how tidily it resolves, however, Get Him to the Greek is a sharply written buddy feature. Aldous' father, set up to be something of a Michael Lohan, claims to reporters that he managed his son and just wants to help (by taking to gossip shows and airing his child's secrets for greater notoriety), Snow hits back with a gem like, "He managed me when I was in his testicles, but once he ejaculated, management's been indie." When Sergio comes at last to force the out-of-control pair to get their rears to Los Angeles, he sparks a grandiose and hilariously pointless fight between himself, Aaron, Aldous and Aldous' dad that tops even the magnificent inanity of fight with Red in Pineapple Express (can all future Apatow Productions have a stupid-awesome fight scene as well? They're the best part of the movies). As Sergio chases Aldous and Aaron through a hotel corridor, the characters point out how absurdly long the set is, with Aldous even shouting, "It's Kubrickian!"

Little nuggets like that keep the film going even when it hits some dull spots, and Get Him to the Greek could have stood trimming another five or seven minutes. But in a summer that's already shaped up to be even more disappointing than the last few years, the many pleasures of Stoller's comedy outweigh the momentum-killing finale. I've had my reservations about Brand, having first caught some of his stand-up and his presenting work on 1 Leicester Square on YouTube and found him a bit too much. But Forgetting Sarah Marshall used him sparingly to great effect, and here he calms his manic energy just enough to be wild but not overpowering. He's a gifted comic and an intelligent man, and he seems to have found a way to calm himself without losing the persona for which he is known. The biggest surprise, however, may be Diddy, who proves to be a terrific comic side character and almost certainly just got himself stenciled in as a possible cameo in a number of future comedies. His portrayal of the record mogul as Stoic drug pusher and mafioso psychopath is as funny as it is accurate, and Combs does a good job of knowing when to drop the laughs to show the darker, profit-driven side of music. He's just one of several pleasant surprises in a flawed film that nevertheless contains enough laughs to warrant a second viewing to hear what jokes you missed while laughing at previous bits. Besides, we should support artists who continue to write unbelievably catchy tunes about venereal diseases. Even fictional ones.

1 comment:

  1. "Besides, we should support artists who continue to write unbelievably catchy tunes about venereal diseases. Even fictional ones."

    Jake, your reviews are my sunshine on cloudy days.

    I agree that the Daphne/Aaron relationship kind of threw a monkey wrench into the best parts of the movie; namely, the ones where Jonah Hill and Russell Brand make each other wildly uncomfortable.