Sixty Percent of the Time, It Works Every Time
During the production of Anchorman, enough footage was shot to make essentially a second film. Released straight to DVD and often packaged with the original, Wake Up, Ron Burgundy is a collection of outtakes and scrapped story ideas for the final product that were sloppily stitched together and used to make some extra money. Watching it is like watching a home video project made by a very eager fan who cobbled together an alternate universe from whatever scraps he could find. It’s not a painful experience by any means, but it just feels off, like watching a dress rehearsal in need of some rewrites.
That’s the overriding feeling in every scene of Get Him to the Greek, a kind-of-sequel-kind-of-not to 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Written and directed by Nicholas Stoller, who helmed the first feature (which was written by Jason Segel), the film takes the Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) character from the first film and builds a new story around him involving his attempt to make a comeback by performing at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre on the ten-year anniversary of a live show that cemented his status as a rock legend. The problem is that his character is markedly different from the first film, and in erratic and inconsistent ways. He’s still a boozer and womanizer, but now he’s also got an ex-wife and son whose presence feel extra forced after his previous incarnation as the lover of a TV star. He’s also given to bouts of drug-fueled rage and equally annoying moments of revelation that are meant to be soul-baring, but both come across more as placeholders than real emotions. But the weirdest aspect of the whole film — the element that makes it so funny but also so forgettable — is the casting of Jonah Hill as the aspiring record exec tasked with shepherding Aldous from London to Los Angeles. Hill played a supporting but still very visible role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, as a waiter infatuated with Aldous. Asking us to buy him in this movie is like asking us to sign on for a sequel to The 40-Year-Old Virgin starring Seth Rogen as Andy’s country cousin. It’s a cute idea, but it winds up making everything feel surreal, as if this is the bizarro version of the earlier film. It’s just, well, off.
The plot is a simple road movie: Aaron has 72 hours to take an often inebriated Aldous from his home in London to the show in Los Angeles. The comeback show is actually Aaron’s idea, though it’s rejected at first by his boss, Sergio (Sean Combs). However, Sergio eventually comes around, planning a concert and for some reason not telling Aaron anything until three days before the show, when he tasks him with bringing the star to California. Aaron and his girlfriend, a doctor named Daphne (Elizabeth Moss), fight about their diverging careers before he hits the road, which gives him leeway to party like a rock star.
The film is staged as a series of set pieces at major stops along the road: London, New York, Las Vegas, and finally Los Angeles. The party scenes are the best in the film and often hilarious, as Aaron struggles to boost Aldous’ ego, still wounded after his last album was trashed by critics and fans, but also keep the guy from going completely out of control. Hill is great at playing earnest schemers, and he’s on solid comic footing every time he has to think up a way to, say, keep Aldous sober for a “Today” show appearance (drink all his booze) or try and keep him from getting high (refuse to relinquish a heroin ball stuffed up his anus). Stoller comes up with some great moments between the guys at increasingly crazy parties, and editors William Kerr and Michael L. Sale create some fantastic rapid-fire collages of images involving everything from garbage fights to the old boot-and-rally. There’s an awesome breakdown in Las Vegas that can only be described as madcap, involving dildos, copious amounts of drugs, and P. Diddy smashing a lava lamp over a guy’s head while “Come On Eileen” plays in the background. Some of the best jokes, though, are the rapid cuts used to smash together timelines, like when Aaron tries to score some heroin from a hotel desk clerk and winds up involved in a bloody and hilarious mini-story that’s condensed to maybe a minute of screen time. The film is at its best in these runaway moments, and though the middle third of the film doesn’t add much to any of the characters, the series of escapades is frequently hilarious. You will laugh. A lot.
And yet: It never quite feels like an actual movie. After the double casting of Hill, other things start to slowly nag: Aldous sees a TV commercial featuring Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) and jokes that he thinks he used to have sex with her, but why is his relationship with her never part of his new story with his ex? Aldous can’t stand the sight of blood or his own injuries in the first film, yet in this one sustains a brutal wound and has no problem waggling it around for Aaron. Aldous’ sobriety was legit but goofy last time, but here it’s a heavy-handed issue that instantly drags the story down whenever it’s mentioned. Stoller was clearly looking for some major problem for Aldous to need help fixing, but he’s already got an ex, a kid, and an unstable fan base that bolted after his last album tanked. Was it really necessary to trot out corny, inspirational patter just this side of “Just say no?” Did we really need an after-school special to learn that heroin is dangerous? The whole film feels like a twisted idea of what might have been if this film had come first. But it didn’t, and as such, it has to live in the shadow and the narrative world of its predecessor, which it’s never comfortable doing.
Still, Hill is a formidable comic presence, and he’s the engine driving this ship. He plays a slightly nicer version of the character he plays in every other film he’s been in, and it’s a sign of just how much Stoller wants you to think of Hill as himself, not the character, that you don’t even hear his name until he’s already appeared in several scenes. Brand is still entertaining as Aldous, but he falters whenever he has to get introspective. He’s at his best when he’s oversexed but well-meaning. Moss is, as expected, underused: Daphne and Aaron are together for no discernible reason at all except that the script says they are, and to say their chemistry is dead seems somehow too charitable. Also typical of a Judd Apatow production, other comic actors are sprinkled throughout but never given chances to shine, including Nick Kroll, Aziz Ansari, and a heavily disguised Ellie Kemper whose sole moment of camera time is occupied by silently nodding at a meeting. Weirdest and worst of all was the waste of the gifted Carlos Jacott as a limo driver whose full face is never even shown.
The criminal misuse of such talent is just another sign that Get Him to the Greek feels like the biggest-budget afterthought in cinema history. The film is often funny and even boasts a few hilarious moments that give it real juice. But it’s impossible to take seriously — to even trust it as real — when it’s so clearly designed to feel like nothing more than a version of events tossed together from abandoned ideas left behind by a much better film. It can’t exist without the first film but doesn’t want to acknowledge its presence, which means it wants to be everywhere but winds up nowhere. Yes, Aldous Snow makes it to California, but is it really him?