Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Forgetting Jason Segel

Only on the rarest occasions do I walk out of a movie surprised by how good it was. The night I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall was one of those instances. Jason Segel's feature writing debut was filled with warm, hilarious, well-drawn characters. Yet as much as I enjoyed the characters, I never expected to see them again. Nevertheless, here we are, discussing Get Him to the Greek, a spinoff written and directed by Nicholas Stoller, the man who directed Sarah Marshall.

Sadly, Stoller's no Segel. Get Him to the Greek is not completely ill-concieved or devoid of fun moments, but it takes a mediocre script and executes it with minimal ability.

Russell Brand's character, Aldous Snow, was quite memorable in Sarah Marshall, and this film seeks to capitalize on that by placing him at the center of the action. A young record label employee named Aaron (Jonah Hill) is enlisted to corral the wild, fading star in order to ensure that he attends a comeback concert. Aaron is a big fan, but he is distracted by a strained relationship with his girlfriend, Daphne (Elisabeth Moss). Upon meeting Snow, he learns that the rocker has relationship issues of his own – issues he'd rather nurse instead of following Aaron's orders.

It's a simple premise that has plenty of built-in potential for satirizing rockers' wild lifestyles and the larger music industry. Some of that comes through, too. The single that put the brakes on Snow's career, "African Child (Trapped in Me)" is an amusing sendup of stars' ignorant, feigned concern for the Third World; Sean Combs's Sergio Roma is bizarrely comical when he goes to extreme lengths to fulfill his duties as a label executive; and even some of the partying sequences manage to be funny. (Of course, the presence of actors like Hill and Brand also ensures that there will be plenty of improvised ranting on the parts of the main characters.)

Yet Stoller's script is extremely weak in places. While the device that drives the plot forward is stated in the title, a major thread in the film is Snow's inner turmoil. He is estranged from his exploitative father, as well as the mother of his child. While I certainly respect Stoller for seeking dramatic depth, both of these plot threads fail to resonate. In Sarah Marshall, Snow was an aloof, new-agey jerk who only betrayed the most distant echos of humanity. In Get Him to the Greek, one of his first scenes shows him casually discussing his daddy issues with his mother and resolving to handle those issues by visiting the man; from the get-go, Snow is far too conscious of his own issues.

This is even evident in Brand's performance. He bears less glassy-eyed rudeness that he did in Sarah Marshall. Here, he seems more inclined to wallow. Even in scenes where he's supposed to be cutting loose, Aaron seems better at doing so. If Snow is really as burdened as the movie tells us he is, he should be partying harder than we expect, not standing there, silently feeling sorry for himself.

This makes the film seem oddly flat. The wild moments feel more jarring than shocking, the emotional ones feel diluted, and the obligatory glitz just glides on by behind it all. Aaron doesn't add much to the proceedings, either. I was happy to see Hill finally step away from his usual asshole archetype and equally happy to see Moss do something a bit lighter than her usual work on Mad Men, but this cute couple's mundane relationship problems never become particularly interesting. I suppose Stoller was trying to contrast it with Snow's life but, in order for that to work, he would've had to effectively convey the madness of Snow's life. Little of what the script tries is a complete failure, but none of it as nearly as effective as it should have been.

Not everything went wrong at the writing stage, though. Stoller's direction is what saps most of the life from this film. He seems to have two settings: Close-up and Other. He relies constantly on tight shots, even in the most inconsequential moments, ensuring that he has no effective way to emphasize the real drama when it comes along. It also results in some disorienting scenes; when all the visual information we're getting is two or three heads conversing with each other, we have no physical context for the action. Stoller's poor direction may also be to blame for some shoddy editing. Characters awkwardly enter a scene with a close-up, and partying montages try to up the comedy with quick cuts that bungle the timing and leave the audience silent.

Stoller does have his moments – particularly a climactic melee in Las Vegas that involves drugs, furry walls, and a deranged Sean Combs. As lame as the script is, there isn't anything glaringly inept or offensive about it. (If only I could say that about all movies.) While the approaches that Brand and Hill take don't exactly make the characters leap off of the screen, these are still talented actors. Also, Brand is very good when singing, helping to create some good music and a shockingly deep soundtrack featuring all of the fictional artists from the film.

These few strengths, however, are not enough to rescue the movie from mediocrity. Forgetting Sarah Marshall may have been a pleasant surprise, but Get Him to the Greek is a proportionate letdown. Segel and Stoller are supposedly reteaming for an upcoming Muppet movie. Hopefully, with Segel's input, we won't be in for another disappointment.

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