Judd Apatow may be taking things a little easier this year, but for the past five years or so, he’s been omnipresent in American film comedy as a writer, a producer, and a director, and his influence on what comedy is getting produced has been undeniable.
What I found interesting about the way the Apatow team approached their films was how they didn’t seem to be built as simple star vehicles, where you take a recognizable established comic persona and build a film specifically suited to them and their strengths. As I continue our new “Saturday Night At The Movies” column (you can read the first two editions here and here), we’ll be talking about what happens when you are more worried about servicing a personality than telling a story or creating characters. I think Steve Carell is great in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Do I think he’s the only person who could have played it? Nope. Do I think “Knocked Up” works because Seth Rogen is so good in it? Yes. Could they have made that same film with a different lead, like Jay Baruchel or Martin Starr? Yes. It would have been different, but possible.
When I was on-set for “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” I was introduced to Russell Brand, and as soon as our interview was done, I found myself in a conversation with producer Shauna Robertson, and right away, the talk was about building a movie around Brand’s outrageous Aldous Snow character with Jonah Hill as a co-star. Aldous was a fairly small part of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” all things considered, but even speaking to him while they were shooting, it was apparent that Brand had a unique comic presence that wouldn’t just drop into any role easily. It’s little wonder, then, that “Get Him To The Greek” is one of the first of the Apatow Company films to really feel like a “Saturday Night Live” movie where the personality came first, with the story secondary, an excuse to throw a few performers together and see what happens.
I’ve heard a few people profess some confusion about the role that Jonah Hill is playing in this film, but that seems silly. He didn’t really play a “character” in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Instead, that was a walk-on that he managed to expand by sheer force of improv. It was never meant to be a “real” role. I was there while they were shooting some of those scenes, and from take to take, they tried things several different ways. I’m sure there was a possible cut of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” where Jonah was basically an extra, where he played the role as written. The entire notion of him being in love with Aldous Snow was something that just evolved out of the actual chemistry between them on the set. That chemistry is what set Nick Stoller and Rodney Rothman thinking about how to extend what they were watching, turn it into something else. Building a whole new character for Jonah and creating a reason for the two of them to spend an entire film together seemed like a given.
In this film, Jonah stars as Aaron Greenberg, an employee of a major record label owned by Sergio (Sean Combs), and at the start of the film, everyone is told to come up with big ideas. Aaron, speaking as a fan first, wants to see a ten-year-anniversary concert by Infant Sorrow, the band that made Aldous Snow a star. Sergio’s not convinced at first, but eventually comes around to the idea, and since Aaron was the one who proposed it, he sends Aaron to London to pick Aldous up and bring him to the concert. The entire premise hangs on the idea that it’s going to be tough for Aaron to get the off-the-wagon Aldous to the gig. The more Aaron pushes Aldous to behave responsibly, the more Aldous pushes Aaron to party like a rock star. This leads to some very bad behavior and some big laughs.
The film feels oddly slack, though, considering what a great built-in tension there is in the premise. There’s a ticking clock from the moment Aaron leaves Los Angeles, and thanks to a major blow-out argument with his girlfriend Daphne (Elizabeth Moss), Aaron is a free man while he’s on the road, meaning he can indulge every terrible suggestion that Aldous makes, even if he knows he shouldn’t. Considering how tight the deadline is for them to get from London to Los Angeles, though, the film seems to meander. There are delays and detours built in, but no matter what, the film never really builds a sense of urgency. It doesn’t ruin the film, but it is curious that a movie build around a deadline as firm as this manages to feel as casually paced as this one.
Most of what you either will or won’t like about this film boils down to the further-developed chemistry between Hill and Brand, and for me, that’s what makes it work. Hill is as timid and sweet here as he was loud and vulgar in “Superbad,” and he impresses with the way he continues to develop his particular comic persona. Hill’s a hard one to pin down right now, with timing that always feels spontaneous and real. He makes a great foil for Brand, and part of that is simply the sight gag of the two of them together. Brand is like a cartoon character version of what a rock star looks like, and he carefully works his lanky, freaky appeal here. The revelation is that Brand can actually act, and there are a few key moments where Snow’s carefully-constructed sense of cool slips to reveal the human being underneath. It makes me think he’s got a lot more to show us as an audience than we’ve seen already, and it’s nice to be surprised by someone’s depth in a movie as silly as this.
Sean Combs, known to most people as Puff Daddy or P. Diddy or Puffy, proves to be a complete lunatic as Sergio, and he earns some of the film’s biggest laughs in the film, especially during an extended side-trip to Vegas where he turns into a comedy version of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 character. Elizabeth Moss and Rose Byrne, playing what could easily just be “the girls” in the film, both manage to inject some quirks and some unique choices into the parts they’ve been given. Byrne has never been sexier than she is here, and I like that she plays unsympathetic. Actors are so concerned with being liked that it’s hard to get someone to do something onscreen that is so clearly unlikeable, but Byrne makes her character’s action understandable. Moss, so good on “Mad Men,” has the hardest role in the film, and she makes some choices later in the film that push things in some unexpected directions. She grounds the movie in the right ways, injecting some reality into what could easily just be absurd.
Overall, there is an abruptness to much of the editing rhythm of the film, as if it was hard to build a movie out of the mountain of footage that was shot, and if you’ve seen all the trailers and TV spots for the film, you’ll realize as you watch the film that much of what you’ve seen in the ads ended up on the cutting room floor. It is rougher around the edges than “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was, but it’s also more aggressive about the sense of humor. I think it feels more conventional than many of the earlier Apatow Company comedies, more wacky, but I think they’re selling it honestly. The film that trailer promises is the film you’ll get if you go see it. There is a rough edge to the humor that is surprising at times… how many studio comedies have you ever seen that feature heroin jokes? Underneath that, though, the film manages to sneak in some truth about what it is that drives that sort of bad behavior, and it is the humanity amidst the hilarity that, more than anything, makes this recognizably part of the post-Apatow school of comedy. “Get Him To The Greek” may be minor key compared to some of the comedies from these stars and writers and producers, but unlike many of the films being foisted on us this summer, the film does exactly what it promises to do, and it should satisfy any jones you have for bad behavior on the bigscreen.
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