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Film On Fine, I’ll Review Get Him To The Greek

June 15, 2010

First of all, to those of you looking for another solid summer comedy from Judd Apatow: go see it. Apatow remains in top form as the unopposed master of anatomy jokes. Dicks, vaginas, scat and vomit abound, usually landing on their comic target, except in an unfortunate scene of female-on-male rape as comedy – I knew we as a culture had not moved past it, but I hoped Apatow as godfather of American comedy had. Get Him To The Greek works out a tonal compromise between the fart-jokes-with-heart mood of most of Apatow’s former work and the melodrama-with-fart-jokes of Funny People. Apatow seems to have retreated from the Chaplinesque sentimentality he reached for with Funny People, but Get Him To The Greek is some of his most emotionally mature work yet.

Emotionally mature.

Writer-director Nicholas Stoller sets himself a formidable challenge by putting on a semi-sequel to Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The Stoller-directed, Jason-Segel-penned FSM had been a highly personal project for Segel, drawing on Segel’s real-life romantic disappointments and his bizarre but true dream of staging a Dracula musical with puppets. Stoller avoids having to imitate Segel’s vision by borrowing only one character from Forgetting, Russell Brand’s lewdly British rock-and-roller Aldous Snow. Aldous Snow, who stole his every scene , is really more Brand’s creation than Segel’s, leaning on Brand’s actual rock-star persona and lifestyle. The movie nominally centers around record-company intern Jonah Hill who, in order to save his career, has to… get Brand to the Greek [Theater]. (Imperative sentences really do make awkward titles, don’t they? Except of course for “Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill!”) But it’s clearly more of a character study of Aldous Snow, a priggish superstar facing professional decline and personal hardship for the first time in his life. Snow tries to smother his feelings with drugs, alcohol and casual cruelty, but he finds himself not quite as heartless as he’d hoped. He commands attention so well that the rest of the cast tends to orbit around him.

Although logically, they should be orbiting around Jonah Hill.

Stoller is a great actor’s director, drawing memorable comic performances from a cast largely unproven in comedy. After God knows how many takes, he even draws a great turn from the normally affectless Sean “Diddy” Coombs, as Hill’s megalomaniacal boss. Even more improbably, he makes a leading man out of Jonah Hill, whose limited range served him best in small character roles. In the Apatow pantheon, Hill represents a sort of lower-rent Seth Rogen, without the subtle timing, even less immersed in character, even more reliant on his physical awkwardness to get laughs. Neither has the forceful acting talent of Jason Segel or the laser-targeted deadpan of Paul Rudd. The moody, bugfuck James Franco is sort of the Syd Barrett of the group. Stoller plays to Hill’s greatest strength: allowing a relentless, merciless plot to render him completely pathetic, while retaining just a tiny bit of dignity by acting like he’s in on the joke. He directs around Hill’s weaknesses, keeping him penned in around stronger comic voices.

Some of the best laughs – and most of the film’s emotional punch – come from Elisabeth Moss, best known as Peggy from Mad Men. Moss, as Hill’s doctor girlfriend (no relation), plays one of Judd Apatow’s characteristic 2.1-dimensional women. You can tell the story’s trying to make her more than just a sounding board for the boys, making her sympathetic, giving her a wicked streak of her own, but she’s never quite as fully fleshed out as the other characters. Her early scenes with Hill are some of the best in the movie, depicting the intimacy struggles of newly married late-twentysomethings. They attempt to build a life together as their careers are just taking off, and their brief encounters are at once funny and heartrending. This is one of very few recent movies to even address the bizarre gulf between ages 25 and 35 caused by the modern-day career ladder, and it tries gamely to address the joys and struggles of that age. The events of the film represent a last gasp of youthful independence for both partners, who face tough choices between their careers and their relationship for the first time in their lives.

Pretend I didn't say this, but she looks like a Wallace and Gromit character.

But of course the greatest performance in the film is Brand’s, in his hilarious but strangely dark portrayal of a man gone wild. Brand, his inflections and timing steeped in the British comic tradition, has a very un-Apatow comic manner, retreating fully into character and snarling out punchlines without giving a damn if the audience catches them. But somehow his rhythm aligns itself in perfect counterpoint with the rest of the cast. He plays off his co-stars beautifully, particularly in the scenes where he and Diddy try to out-crazy each other. But he’s at his most gripping in his dramatic moments, in which his character reveals a terrifying, nihilistic dependency on every drug he can get his hands on. He charms and browbeats poor Jonah into scoring for him, rectally stashing his cocaine in public, and joining the party at every conceivable opportunity. He drifts black-hole-like through the world, unconcerned with whom he hurts, trying to degrade everyone to his level. One senses that Brand is drawing on his true experiences as an addict, making for some honestly frightening moments. Only in a few touching scenes with Hill and a few overblown scenes with his character’s son (Lino Facioli) does Brand show any signs of humanity.

A little bizarrely, this movie about the music industry doesn’t have that much to say about music. Brand’s talents and Hill’s love of music are mostly informed, not shown. Brand has a few mildly amusing musical numbers, which sound great but are mostly forgettable. His music video for “African Child”, a parody of Bono-style musical “activism”, was supposed to be a comic highlight of the film, but it’s just not that clever. Hill, Brand and Diddy are all well-characterized on a personal level, but they never act all that connected to music. This is one of few weaknesses at the core of Get Him To The Greek: unlike in, say, Walk Hard or any Christopher Guest movie, the music doesn’t work. Since so much of the emotional stakes of the movie rest in the music, many scenes aren’t as dramatic as they’re supposed to be. The partying scenes are also bizarrely functional, serving more to show that a party happened at a certain time than to involve the viewer in the mood. Far be it from me to condemn a Hollywood comedy for being too subtle or too character-focused, but we don’t get anything to watch.

Unless Diddy's onscreen.

We can always count on Judd Apatow to produce the best comedy of the summer: the question is usually whether he’s produced one of the best comedies of all time. In this case, he hasn’t. If he can transfer this film’s genuine emotional honesty to a livelier, more focused film, he will. Get Him To The Greek hints at much more exciting things to come.

Rating: three out of four Diddys

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