Judd Apatow — the current king of movie comedy — took an admirable risk last summer with the bloated and terribly self-involved "Funny People." The Adam Sandler film took a nosedive at the box office, a fate it deserved.
This summer, the creator of crowd-pleasers like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" rebounds mightily with "Get Him to the Greek," one of the funniest, raunchiest and edgiest comedies in years.
The outrageous "Greek" works better than "Funny People" at least in part because Apatow, who tends to make films that meander too much, hands over writing and directing duties to a protege — "Forgetting Sarah Marshall's" Nicholas Stoller. Instead, Apatow produces "Greek," just as he did with the terrific teen comedy "Superbad."
Although the funnyman didn't pen "Greek's" Thumbelina-sized plot — about a record company employee's misadventures getting an obnoxious Brit rocker to a comeback concert in Los Angeles — his fingerprints are all over it. That's most apparent in "Greek's" themes about the slavish desire to be a celebrity and the tragic consequences from achieving superstardom.
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Sound heavy for a flick that consistently makes you laugh so much you want to shout "uncle"?
Well, yes, but Stoller ably juggles the broad physical comedy and the more serious overtones. Whether it's a hysterical scene involving a furry wall in Las Vegas and a humongous drug-filled cigarette or one involving a menage a trois that evolves into something much more unsettling, the filmmaker's always in command.
At every turn, "Greek" mixes vulgarity and seriousness with ease and does so by trimming out any flab and grossing things up even more than what we're accustomed to in an Apatow film.
"Greek" undoubtedly benefits from its stellar cast, especially Russell Brand as the obnoxiously narcissistic rocker Aldous Snow. "Sarah Marshall" fans know Aldous from an appearance in that goofy comedy that added much of its spark. (Jonah Hill (Aaron), too, co-starred in "Marshall" but he doesn't reprise his role from that film.)
Another treat is all the rock-star and TV-personality cameos, including Lars Ulrich, Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mario Lopez and Meredith Vierra.
In "Greek," Stoller makes Aldous a real person rather than a buffoon. The fallen rocker suffers not only from a drug addiction but suicidal thoughts. He also carries a torch for his pop-queen ex-wife Jackie Q (Rose Byrne of TV's "Damages") and is emotionally scarred by a parasitic mom (Dinah Stabb) and dad (Colm Meaney of "Law Abiding Citizen").
It would be easy to imagine an actor wanting to make a character like Aldous more endearing, but Brand stays true to the part throughout, never making the seemingly shallow man truly likable; he humiliates his chaperone Aaron at every turn. But just when you're ready to write Aldous off, Brand adds a vulnerable streak to make him more human.
As Aaron, Hill plays his perfect foil. He becomes almost too eager to take the bullet for Aldous, chugging booze and doing drugs so Aldous doesn't. Is that from wanting to accomplish his mission? Or is it because he secretly longs to experience the rock 'n' roll lifestyle? Those questions add dimension to the film, which totters at the end by wrapping up things a little too neatly. Although Hill gets the punching-bag role, the disarming actor shows range, specifically in his restless exchanges with his stressed-out girlfriend Daphne (Elisabeth Moss of "Mad Men").
But the real scene-stealer turns out to be P. Diddy, aka Sean Combs, as the mad-dog, Red-Bulled record producer Sergio. Combs' comic timing is impeccable and he owns every moment he's on screen, whether staring incredulously at his terrified staff or turning rabid after doing drugs.
What a delight he is, and what a welcome summer surprise "Get Him to the Greek" is: a bold and hilarious comedy that says something astute about us, our idols and how all that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll really isn't everything it's cracked up to be — especially if you are the one caught in its crosshairs.
GET HIM TO THE GREEK
Grade: Three and a half stars
Starring: Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, Sean Combs, Elisabeth Moss, Rose Byrne
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Rating: R (strong sexual content and drug use throughout, and pervasive language)
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes