When seeking out an immediate frame of reference for Nick Stoller’s enjoyably absurd, hard-R romp Get Him to the Greek, about the road trip misadventures of a hedonistic rock god and a well-meaning, long-suffering agent from his record label, you could easily place it within one of two recent traditions: The current surge in Men Behaving Badly burlesques (The Hangover, Hot Tub Time Machine) or among its fellow raunchy-sweet forays from the Team Apatow factory (Knocked Up, Superbad, Walk Hard.)
Of those two, I’d say Greek falls more agreeably into the latter than the former camp. (Probably no surprise — Apatow is a producer here, and he and Stoller go back to the days of Undeclared.) For all the rock-star depravity on display during this sordid bender of a road trip, the film feels smarter and less fratty than the Todd Phillips oeuvre. (As our Odd Couple race down a Vegas hallway to escape an amphetamine-fueled P Diddy: “This is the longest hallway of all time!” “It’s Kubrickian!“) And it keeps its aw-shucks Apatow humanism at heart even amid all the thoroughly reprehensible behavior — the binge-drinking, drug muling, public vomiting, green musing, threesomes, jeff-smoking, and whatnot. (In fact, Greek gets positively Lost Weekend-wistful at times, which is not a setting you saw much of in Old School.)
And amid the raunch, Greek also hearkens back to earlier influences. In its basic plot outline, this is sort of a remake of the Peter O’Toole, Mark Linn-Baker comedy My Favorite Year (a movie I saw multiple times growing up, since my grandfather loved it and it was kicking around the house on VHS back when videotapes were still a novelty.) And with its two industry men on a mission, its easy drug use and hero worship, its deft early wise-cracking about music video and celebrity culture, its absurdist pulse, and its ultimate fanboy fondness for all things rock-n-roll, Greek also reminded me of the under-appreciated Cusack-Robbins vehicle, Tapeheads — Aldous Snow, meet the Swanky Modes. (Spinal Tap is pretty obviously in the mix too.)
I should say on a note of full disclosure that Stoller’s brother is a friend and colleague of mine here in town, so I went into Greek predisposed to warm to it and enjoy myself. But, even if there wasn’t any personal connection, I’m pretty sure I would’ve been sold by the first ten minutes or so. After some mild concern that one has wandered into the wrong movie — we at first seem to be in Blood Diamond territory — it turns out we are in fact on the music video set for an atrocious (yet globally-conscious!) new single “African Child,” by ex-rock-god and frontman of Infant Sorrow Aldous Snow (Russell Brand, reprising his role from Forgetting Sarah Marshall.) Talking about his newest magnum opus to the interviewers about, Snow decidedly does not compare himself to an “African White Jesus from Outer Space.” (“Well, that’s for other people to say, really. That I remind them of Christ.“)
All the while, the crush-worthy, genre-friendly Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later), Sunshine) is vamping and skee-bopping around behind him as Snow’s girlfriend, international pop star Jackie Q — a vaguely cruel, often devastating send-up of, at various times, Lady Gaga, M.I.A., Lily Allen, and Alicia Keys. As with Hot Fuzz, this first ten minutes is so gleefully over-the-top and frontloaded with celebrity cameos that it gives you the sense that [a] folks had a great time making this movie and [b] pretty much anybody might show up over the course of this flick — a feeling compounded by the likes of Pharrell, Tom Felton (nee Draco Malfoy), and Paul Krugman popping up at various times throughout the ride.
Unfortunately for Aldous, “African Child” is very quickly deemed “the worst thing to happen to Africa since apartheid, and that — coupled with Jackie’s absconding away into the arms of Lars Ulrich (“Why don’t you go sue Napster, you little Danish twit!“) — sends him careening off the wagon and back into rock star excess. Enter Aaron Green (Jonah Hill, looking ever more like the late Chris Penn), an inveterate Infant Sorrow fan, now record label guy, who comes up with the grand idea of a tenth anniversary comeback concert for Aldous Snow at the Greek Theater. His tyrannical boss (P Diddy, funnier than you’d think) signs off on the gambit, and so Aaron is sent forth to London to acquire Snow for the gig. Kick up a rumpus, don’t lose the compass — but get him to the Greek on time…
And there you have it — The rest of the movie consists of Aaron going through all manner of hedonism and indignity to get Aldous Snow across the world, on stage, and in-the-zone. Over the duration, this dissolute duo bond, cavort, discuss their girl trouble, hide and remove things in sundry body cavities, and ingest enough drugs and alcohol to kill a small donkey. To be honest, the film does go shapeless at times, and it works best before [obvious spoiler] they reach their final destination city. (Without the road trip and ticking clock giving form to the tale, it feels like it rambles all over the place in the last twenty-five minutes or so.) And some of the characters — most notably Aaron’s sweet but overworked girlfriend Daphne — seem on the underwritten side (partly because she’s played by Elisabeth Moss of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce, and so we expect her to be given more to do.)
Still, in the end, the film works thanks to the chemistry and comic timing of its two leads, and Brand and Hill have both in spades. (So, for that matter, does the supporting cast — Byrne, Moss, Diddy, and the venerable Colm Meaney as Snow’s gone-Vegas pop.) Your mileage may vary, of course — this would be an easy movie to deem tasteless, and at times, it’s a hard argument to refute — but I still found Greek, like The Men Who Stare at Goats last year, a light, frothy, druggy and funny jaunt sustained by its amiable characters and smart, self-aware writing. Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk, it’s still rock and roll to me.