In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a comedy of love triangles produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Nicholas Stoller, British comedian Russell Brand co-starred as Aldous Snow, a debauched rocker who steals an aimless man child's girlfriend and spirits her away to Hawaii, where the star is semi-stalked by a creepy-intense hotel employee/fan played by Jonah Hill. Get Him to the Greek, from the same producer/director team, stars Brand in a reprise of his Sarah Marshall role, and Hill, who plays an entirely new character. This is one indication that maintaining narrative logic was not a primary goal in the production of Greek, a mash-up of what have become the stock tropes of the modern male-oriented comedy, in which socially awkward guys, presented with easy opportunities for indulgence in sex and mind-altering substances, long to crawl back into the womb or return to a house-training ex-girlfriend — whatever's easier.
Hill plays Aaron, a cubicle jockey at a record company in desperate need of a cash cow. Mogul CEO Sergio (Sean Combs) has his hopes pinned on a new rap single (chorus: “Gonna fuck that shit/gonna knock up your bitch”), but Aaron has a more ambitious suggestion: Why not mount a comeback gig for Aldous Snow, celebrating the 10th anniversary of his band, Infant Sorrow's legendary show at the Greek Theater?
Snow hasn't performed live in three years. A montage of clips and headlines from commercial scandal mills like Extra, TMZ and Perez Hilton clues us in to his recent career slide, precipitated by a disastrous attempt at a do-gooder record, “African Child,” the video for which has Snow in Christ mode, wandering a war zone and giving birth to a black infant. After getting dumped by his back-on-the-bottle baby mama on national TV, Snow rehabbed his career (and gave the gleeful tabloids much grist) by spectacularly falling off the wagon. With Snow a hot commodity again thanks to his self-destructive extracurricular activities, imagine how much money could be made if he were to actually do his job? And so Sergio dispatches Aaron to London, where he is to pick up the perma-trashed star, escort him to New York for an appearance on The Today Show, and then follow the directive of the film's title in time for a sold-out concert in Griffith Park.
As in other recent wild-ride comedies (such as The Hangover and the Harold and Kumar enterprise), Greek's plot is nonsensical — Sergio claims to own “21 Koo Koo Roos,” but he doesn't have a private jet he can send to expedite the rock-star wrangling? — the mission just a limp hanger for a series of stoney, ostensibly unhinged set pieces. From the masculinity-threatening encounters with hot female tops (shades of Superbad) to the male-bonding-via-hallucinogens montages (shades of pretty much every comedy targeted to young men over the last two decades), most of Greek's gags are too familiar to be funny. The fake songs written for the film are the most reliable source of comedy, but the music has its own logic problem. Both the songs coded as bad (“African Child”) and the songs coded as good (“The Clap” which, like most of Snow's hit ditties, directly addresses venereal disease and/or his dick) play like Weird Al compositions: They're all convincing approximations of real pop music, with parody lyrics. This dilutes the closest thing Greek has to subtext, a celebration of the authentic power of rock in a beyond-superficial pop landscape.
Greek's confused cultural critique almost looks sharp next to its tired sexual politics, which, as with most Apatow factory films, suggest that masculinity is a sham. Snow, all unrestrained id in Marshall, is revealed in Greek to be desperate for domesticity, and it's contagious — after three days in his company, the nebbishy Aaron learns he's lucky to be whipped by his own doctor girlfriend (Elizabeth Moss). Film critics, bloggers and other arbiters of cultural taste bloodthirstily bash the Sex and the City films for indulging in and promoting unrealistic fantasies (that urbane, libidinally liberated ladies really want a man to take care of them; that older women could be successful sexual aggressors). Greek, in the current tradition of Hollywood bromances, traffics in a general fear of sex, ultimately suggesting that the only thing men really want is a woman who'll take care of them. It's the same fairy tale, with the genders flipped.
For all the flaws of films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Funny People, there's no question that Apatow's directorial efforts are the work of an auteur with a unique, cohesive and coherent vision. The sexual conservatism in his stories at least feels like it's in context — male sexual panic is, in a way, Apatow's signature fetish. His films purport to showcase the wild and crazy adventures of boys behaving badly, but when given the opportunity to break free and indulge all of their supposed fantasies, the guys freak out and embrace the domestic relationships that supposedly constrained them.
This theme has bled into productions made by Apatow protégés as well as filmmakers outside his jurisdiction (see: The Hangover's desperate final-act thumbs-up to matrimony), but not everyone can pull it off. Greek, as directed by Nicholas Stoller, feels slopped together according to the Apatow Productions schematic, but its late-inning morality lacks organic purpose and rings false — this is, remember, a film about a rock star whose brand is depravity. Under Apatow's direction, when boys move beyond their base desires, it's character development. Under Stoller's, it's a buzzkill.