Sex, drugs, rock and roll; that’s Get Him to the Greek in a nutshell, though those little words simply can’t convey the heights of insanity to which Nick Stoller’s spin-off of 2007’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall (or follow-up to, depending on your perspective) ascends. Stoller, this time around handling writing duties in addition to the tasks of a director (credit is given, of course, to Jason Segel for writing the original film), treats his latest film as an exercise in escalation, building a head of steam with each sequence and using that forward momentum to out-do himself scene after scene. Think Get Him to the Greek has reached its comedic peak when stars Russell Brand and Jonah Hill recreate the iconic adrenaline syringe moment from Pulp Fiction? (referenced frequently in the trailers.) Stoller tops it. And then tops that.
Get Him to the Greek feels something like a profane spiritual successor to Richard Benjamin’s first jaunt from behind the director’s chair, 1982’s lesser known comedy My Favorite Year, soaked in alcohol and vomit (primarily Hill’s) and flavored with a liberal application of marijuana use and language so coarse it could make Jim Norton blush. The story sounds familiar: Fan likes rock star, fan meets rock star, fan is put through the ringer as he’s introduced to the rock star lifestyle, fan decides that rock star is kind of an asshole, and so on. Here, Hill reunites with Sarah Marshall co-star Brand; the former plays Aaron, a low-level employee at a major record label charged with ferrying the latter, reprising his role as hard-rocking British megastar Aldous Snow, from England to the United States to play at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. Ostensibly, the point is celebrating the anniversary of a legendary, record-breaking Snow performance held at the venue ten years prior. Ecstatic at first, Aaron quickly finds himself woefully unqualified to manage the turbulent Snow, and our hapless hero sees the situation spiraling out his control as the countdown to the concert grows slimmer and slimmer.
While the marriage of Brand and Hill might seem odd given the relative lack of time their two characters were given to interact with one another in Sarah Marshall, the pairing makes sense once they’re on-screen together and they begin to play off of one another, the overwhelmed everyman realizing he’s in over his head with the smooth, restless, and seemingly unflappable celebrity. Hill’s stammering, timorous intern provides a perfect foil for Brand’s chaotic rock star, a man who simultaneously manages to appear both more collected than his partner and much, much less with it. Both of them have a knack for emphasizing comedic beats with incredible facial expressions and body language that can turn a chuckle into a deep belly laugh, and ultimately their combined talent pushes the film to the point of almost feeling exhausting by the time the third act rolls around.
I mean this as nothing less than a compliment, because even as I struggled to regain my breath I still found myself trying to laugh even though my ribs told me “no”. Greek might not have the same emotional core as Sarah Marshall (I’m sorry, I swear that that’s the last time I’ll compare the two), but pound for pound its script contains exponentially more funny. Brand and Hill are both batting at .500 here, taking each and every opportunity to squeeze as much laughter out of a single line or gesture as humanly possible. They maximize the jokes they’re given. It probably helps, too, that Greek is infinitely more indecent and obscene than its predecessor (fine, I lied), which puts it squarely in the leading duo’s wheelhouse; for any familiar with Brand’s stand-up, the film occasionally reads as a visual interpretation of one of his routines, an account of the debauchery that he swears occurred, at one point, in his life on a daily basis.
What keeps the comedy going is that Stoller and his cast never tell the same joke twice. They certainly never tell it the same way twice. Greek never at any point recycles itself; every single sequence feels fresh and totally unique while still managing to play off of the moments that have come previously. Even when the set-up for a scene feels familiar– Brand and Hill venture into an awful lot of bars together– Stoller introduces something new into the mix that allows each scene to feel completely singular and keeps the picture from stagnating. It’s impressive that what could be described as a montage of Brand getting Hill intoxicated to the point of evacuation doesn’t ever feel like it’s plucking the same note over and over again.
Best exemplifying this approach? Sean Combs, playing Aaron’s no-nonsense (so we think) hard-ass of a boss, Sergio, who goes from normal as far as comedy standards go to unhinged, out of his mind deranged. Combs might well be the film’s secret weapon; I went in having no idea what to expect from the guy, and as it turns out? He’s amazing. I desperately, desperately want to talk endlessly about the lengths Diddy’s character goes to in order to motivate Aaron and safeguard his business opportunity, but I can’t ruin that for you. If you want to see what happens when Combs gets wasted in the same room as Colm Meaney, you’re going to have to buy a ticket for yourself. (Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.)
Of course, great comedies aren’t just carried by the strength of their jokes, though they are without a doubt the most important part. What makes a comedy really memorable, for me, often comes down to having something more at the center. If the best of the bunch riding on-board the Judd Apatow gravy train boast one trait that separates them from multitudes of other cinematic comedy talents (apart from their greater aptitude for humor), it’s that they make it a point to inject at least a modicum of heart into the stories that they tell. That essential element, so often overlooked, does an important service for comedy films: It gives the story meaning and resonance, which in turn affords even more impact to the jokes, the meat and potatoes of the comedy experience. Am I over-analyzing what makes for good comedy? If you’re laughing, then the film obviously works on some level, but it’s underlying emotion that makes a comedy worth celebrating.
What makes Greek so special is exactly that little extra something, that kernel of heart buried not-so-far beneath the surface of the characters and their respective stories. For Aaron, his duty to both Snow and Sergio represents an opportunity for career advancement, which he takes ultimately at the cost of his relationship with his girlfriend, Daphne (Elisabeth Moss); his boss describes the task of escorting Snow as Aaron’s “one moment”, his single chance to in essence prove himself and make a name for himself. This is about getting ahead for Aaron, though he follows Sergio’s harsh and destructive orders with extreme reluctance. It’s also about meeting his rock and roll idol in real life, which turns out to be not quite the experience Aaron assumed it would be, because Snow isn’t at all the man our hero expected.
Maybe that shouldn’t be a huge surprise– Snow’s career trajectory, at the start of the film, has taken a massive turn for the worst in the face of a universally hated new single (“African Child”, described as being the third worst thing to happen to Africa after war and famine), a separation from his lover, the controversial pop star Jackie Q. (Rose Byrne, not afraid at all to play dirty with the boys here), and a relapse to his days of constant drug abuse after finally getting clean. For Brand, Greek is a redemption story about Snow trying to rebuild himself and move forward past his failures. Throughout the film, Snow’s simply lost, trying to find something to give his life meaning again as he wrestles with his addictions and with himself. Both men share something of a symbiotic relationship with one another, Aaron serving as Snow’s conscience as Snow brings Aaron to realize that he might be meant for something better than the business that he loves so much.
But maybe none of that matters. Maybe Greek‘s underlying themes about the damaging nature of both celebrity culture and celebrity worship don’t mean anything next to the film’s ability to invoke laughter in its audiences. Brand treats Snow with that rock star air that seems to come to him so easily while imbuing him with an unexpected soulfulness, while Hill brings wild-eyed charm to the beleaguered Aaron, but that’s not what you’re here to see. (Though you may appreciate them nonetheless, even if you aren’t looking for them.) If the spirit of Greek isn’t what’s going to sell your ticket, then the fact that, put bluntly, it’s a damn funny movie ought to be sufficient. Stoller and his unbelievable, on-point cast have provided a new benchmark for raucous, foul-mouthed obscenity in humor for other directors to meet. 2010 has a ways to get yet until it’s over, but they may also have gifted us with the best comedy of the year. I’ll know for sure in December. But until then? You’re not going to find a funnier movie in your local multiplex, hands-down.