A mistake a lot of films make is to think dumb characters automatically equals funny. It's not satisfying to just plop down some idiots in the middle of a situation and watch as they make every stupid choice possible That's how you end up with the Three Stooges - and isn't a bittersweet day in the growth of a film watcher when he realizes how funny those guys aren't. More recently this mentality gives you flicks like Step Brothers, where the characters are so relentlessly stupid you wonder how they dress and feed themselves. This gets tiresome in a big hurry. Much better is characters who are bright and alert and who follow impeccable logic into ridiculous predicaments. Lemmon and Curtis were hilarious in Some Like it Hot not just because they look funny in dresses in wigs but because those were clever guys and putting on the dresses and wigs really seemed like the smart thing to do under the circumstances.
All this is a roundabout way of explaining why Get Him to the Greek got me on its side early and kept me there despite coming up far short of a masterpiece. The leads played by Russell Brand and Jonah Hill have intelligence and depth where a lot of movie would have settled for two-dimensional, wind-up debauchery machines. It's easy to forgive the movie its meandering when we enjoy the company of its characters this much.
Jonah Hill's strong work was less surprising since he's made a career out of playing acerbic, motor-mouths. I wonder if he has an unintelligent character in him - even playing a stoned slacker in Knocked Up he seems pretty sharp. The pleasant surprise is that they haven't turned rock god Aldous Snow into a one-note caricature. Brand plays Snow not as a Spinal Tap-esque dim bulb, but rather a shrewd professional who has grown spoiled and depressed and made a conscious choice to spend his time in a drug-addled fog, coasting on his immense charisma, surrounded by yes men.
The story is simple. Jonah Hill is mid-level record company employer Aaron Green. When his boss (played by a shockingly funny P. Diddy) demands a new idea to salvage the flailing music industry Aaron suggests reaching back to an old success, Snow, one of the last remaining rock legends. Ten years ago Snow gave a star-making performance at the Greek Theater in LA and Green hits on the idea of an anniversary concert. Aldous Snow is a character who appears to have been assembled in a lab out of equal parts Bono, Sting, Ozzy, and the Gallaghers, and Green is a tasked with sitting on the wild man for three days and delivering him at the Greek, if not in mint condition, then at least in serviceable enough shape to push out on stage.
The film's ad campaign is trying to position it as this Summer's answer to The Hangover which is misleading. Oh sure, Snow leads Green on a whirlwind of revelry and indulgence, but the film balances out those scenes with moments of relative calm. Snow, for example, is clearly still smarting from the epic failure of his last album Infant Sorrow - a mishmash of rock star pretension and empty-headed do-gooderism about African suffering that Bono couldn't produce on his worst day. ("The worst thing to happen to Africa since apartheid," blares one headline) "Tell me your honest opinion," Aldous pleads. Aaron, too sincere a music lover to make a good ass-kisser, fails to understand that such requests translate as "Lie to me, but make it good."
I feel I'm in the process of driving viewers away from the film by making it sound like a subtle character study. Let me back up: this is a raucous, funny movie. It is just that the rock and roll excess never goes over the top and the shenanigans remain rooted firmly in reality- no Hangover-level hijinks with stray tigers and Mike Tyson. This is both the strength and weakness of the film. It's a strength when it gets the details right about the kind of troubles a rock star and record company lackey could plausibly find themselves in, like when Aaron, much worse for wear after an endless night of partying, escorts Snow to the Today Show only to be plunged into crisis mode when Aldous informs him he cannot remember the lyrics to his own song. I also enjoyed the well-drawn relationship between Aldous his ne'er-do-well father, played by the always welcome Colm Meaney. His dad is not shy about taking credit for his son's stardom despite never succeeding in his own career past playing back up in Vegas lounge act. Watch closely for the moment Aldous finds the rare compliment buried in his father's relentless stream of passive aggressive bitterness.
The laid back approach is a weakness when Get Him to the Greek fails to generate much comic momentum as the duo barrel along towards show time. Since the film is essentially a series of episodes with little connecting tissue it's inevitable that some episodes work better than others. The climax of the film, for example, which involves Aldous blasting through Aaron's conservative personal life like a sexual tornado, should be an uproarious comic high point, but doesn't really work. It might have worked as the culmination of all the comic energy up to that point, but as a stand alone episode it falls strangely flat.
It's not just the likability of the leads that carries the movie over its rough patches. One of the best things about the new crop of Apatow-influenced films is that they appreciate the value of a rich supporting cast, and Greek has a deep bench. I've already mentioned how funny P. Diddy is but I should point out I don't mean he's funny for P.Diddy, I mean as funny as the comedy pros center stage. That's no faint praise. Also on hand is Elisabeth Moss, doing well with the straight role of Aaron's longtime girlfriend, and Rose Byrne, wielding a hell of an English accent, and equally convincing as Snow's sober ex-wife and as a Kate Perry-like outrageous rock star. Filling out the cast in tiny roles are a bunch of comedy ringers such as Aziz Ansari, Ellie Kemper, and with all of two lines the wonderful Kristen Schaal. My bias towards Ms. Schaal is well documented, and with no offense to Ms. Moss who does fine work, I'm curious to see what Kristen Schaal could have done with the bigger part of Aaron's girlfriend. Her out-of-left-field comic energy might have brought a lot to that character's scenes.
Verdict: Whoever first thought that the character of Aldous Snow was rich enough to warrant his own spin-off from Forgetting Sarah Marshall was right to follow that instinct. He is a great comic creation, and Jonah Hill is an effective partner for him to spar with (he certainly makes more of an impression than Mark Linn-Baker did in a similar role in My Favorite Year) Brand also makes a credible rock star performing his own songs that pass for the real deal and should be remembered in that category come Oscar time. I enjoyed spending time with these guys so much that I wouldn't mind if Aldous Snow got a third go-round. It's an easy film to recommend. 7 out of 10