Every week, New York magazine runs an “approval matrix” on its back page, dividing the week in pop culture along two axes: highbrow and lowbrow, and brilliant and despicable. Way out in the lowbrow/despicable quadrant last issue was the new comedy Get Him to the Greek, which depicts a music-industry ingenue’s hapless attempt to escort a hard-living rock star from London to Los Angeles — and which New York’s matrixers described, disapprovingly, as a movie “about a character who’s always getting into wacky shenanigans because he’s addicted to heroin. Ha! Ha?”
This surprisingly judgmental dismissal of what seems, at first blush, a harmless send-up of rock-star culture encapsulates the dilemma facing the Apatovian school of filmmaking — the unusual blend of raunchy slapstick and heartfelt moralism pioneered by Judd Apatow, and imitated by a slew of disciples. Having mastered the art of the crowd-pleasing blockbuster, the Apatovians clearly aspire to elevate their style into something closer to real art. But thus far, their attempts have left their audience more baffled than inspired.
Last year, Apatow himself tried to make this transition, with Funny People, a movie about the stand-up comedy business whose jokes were less important than its searing portrait of a celebrity comedian (played by Adam Sandler as a darker version of himself) facing up to the consequences of a dissolute life. In response, the critics griped that Apatow had lost his popcorn-movie touch — that his essentially tragic movie went on too long and didn’t have the broad laughs and sunny spirit of Knocked Up or The 40-Year-Old Virgin. (“Please, please, go back and make Judd Apatow movies,” Time’s Richard Corliss wrote, in a representative lament.)
So now we have Get Him to the Greek, written and directed by Apatow protégé Nicholas Stoller, which seems to have been made with the disappointing reaction to Funny People uppermost in mind. Nobody can accuse this movie of lacking belly laughs: It’s frantic, profane, and frequently hilarious, a picaresque odd-couple movie yoked to a satisfyingly savage parody of the music business, and anchored by the smoldering comedy of Russell Brand, the British funnyman who plays the washed-up rocker Aldous Snow.
Brand first appeared as Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Stoller’s directorial debut, where his outrageous supporting turn stole the movie out from under the romantic leads. Here he’s paired with Jonah Hill’s Aaron Green, a very junior record-company executive who comes up with the bright idea of summoning Snow to L.A.’s Greek Theatre for the tenth anniversary of a career-making concert. Assigned to be the rock star’s chaperone by his music-mogul boss (Sean Combs, surprisingly subtle in a broadly written part), Aaron falls through a trap door into the perpetual bacchanal of the rock-star lifestyle, where he’s subjected to an escalating series of humiliations during the long 72 hours it takes them to hopscotch from Snow’s London flat to his appointment in the City of Angels.
For a while, the movie that Get Him to the Greek most resembles is Ben Stiller’s recent Hollywood comedy Tropic Thunder. Like Stiller’s parody, it’s studded with spot-on send-ups of contemporary pop culture, and all-too-plausible evocations of the ways that showbiz types relate to one another. Snow has a resentful father, played by the Irish actor Colm Meaney, who bellows about his genetic contribution to his son’s success, and a gorgeous ex-girlfriend, the singer Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), who specializes in music videos that make Lady Gaga’s oeuvre look modest. If you don’t mind laughing through the cultural catastrophe, these videos are just about the funniest thing in the movie, eclipsed only by the single that sent Snow’s career into a tailspin in the first place, a save–the–Third World ballad whose chorus runs, “Trapped in me, there’s a little African child . . .”
But Stoller, like Apatow, has more serious ambitions as well. This is where the heroin addiction that so offended New York’s matrixers comes in: Snow is hilarious, yes, but he’s also dark and tormented and miserable, as empty as the lifestyle he’s embraced, and as the movie moves from one comic set-piece to the next, the note of tragedy gets sharper and sharper. The final act, in Los Angeles, features a brutal break-up, an appalling sexual encounter that plays like an Apatovian version of The Ice Storm, and finally a suicide attempt. At which point it is suddenly clear that the movie Get Him to the Greek is imitating is, well, Funny People: Its madcap hilarity notwithstanding, it’s another dark-dark-dark portrait of the costs of success, and the wages of sin.
Alas, it doesn’t quite gel. You can’t start out broadly comic and end up in Leaving Las Vegas territory without giving the audience whiplash, and inspiring uncomprehending reactions like the New York approval matrix’s thumbs down. (Funny People was more artistically coherent, and a better movie as a result.) But it’s an honorable and interesting failure, and I hope that Apatow’s crew keeps working this comedy-meets-tragedy vein, rather than retreating wholesale into more adolescent territory. They’re trying to entertain their audiences without just pandering to them, and to get at truths about human nature that Hollywood comedies rarely touch. And whether they misfire or succeed, the enterprise is worth applauding.