Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sort of movies regular people all over the country are snorting rectally smuggled coke. This week they wake up in London feeling like P. Diddy, and go on Nicholas Stoller’s international sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll binge Get Him to the Greek.
Doesn’t it feel good to laugh again, Henry? Last summer we had a hard time finding a comedy worth its genre labeling (Funny People, Year One, groan, snore), and when we did our enjoyment was contingent on being able to numb ourselves to acute pangs of moral guilt (Bruno: backhandedly homophobic; The Hangover: proudly sexist, classist, racist and homophobic), and though Get Him to the Greek is hardly saintly, writer-director Nicholas Stoller grapples with his inherited white, male, misogynistic, middle-class perspective in a typically unwieldy and Apatovian way. (Judd, the godfather of bromance, produced.) Beyond its clumsy grasping at political correctness, Greek is a very funny, but also strange and often grossly synergistic fusion of This Is Spinal Tap and Almost Famous, re-packaged for the MySpace generation and saturated with celebrity cameos and product placements.
Briefly: Aaron (Jonah Hill) interns at an L.A. record label run by Sergio (P. Diddy, playing the parody of himself that he plays in real life), where staffers search for the next Bieber-Gaga-whathaveyou. He suggests that rather than find another teeny-bopper, they stage a tenth anniversary spectacular at L.A.’s Greek Theater—with attendant album re-releases and re-masterings—for Aldous Snow (Russel Brand, reprising his Forgetting Sarah Marshall character, with songs by Jarvis Cocker), a washed up hipster superstar on a Lohanian disaster streak explicated in the opening Entertainment Tonight-ish celeb gossip show montage. Skeptical at first, Sergio agrees after some intense mind-fucking (Hill: “I hope you’re wearing a condom, because I have a dirty mind.”), and gives Aaron 72 hours to get Aldous from London to the Greek, setting in motion the music nerd’s mad-cap cross-Atlantic journey with his idol.
Before leaping in, we should mention Greek’s touristy sense of place, whereby every city along the way is introduced with a montage of its famous music venues, and then presented as a mix of sightseeing destinations and interchangeable drinking establishments (New York: 30 Rock, dark nightclub; Vegas: The Strip, casino lounge, etc.).
But back to bromance, bro: our odd couple protags continue in the post-millennial genre-du-jour’s tradition of stunted emotional and sexual development—the lanky, parodically libidinous rockstar and the lumpy, shame-faced asexual fanboy—both of whom need women to do all their emoting. Aldous lives with his mother (who he claims to hate) and obsesses over his Lars Ulrich-dating ex Jackie Q (Rose Byrne); Aaron shares a bed and not much else save perhaps a bank account (unpaid internships being what they are—um, unpaid) with his workaholic nurse girlfriend Daphne, Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss, who makes the most of her enabling partner part. These comparatively adult and well-adjusted women prop up what starts as a parody of the burned-out-musician-redemption subgenre (most recently, Crazy Heart), but eventually falls into a checklist of its various conventions—epic drug binge, tearful reunion with former lover, over-earnest return to stage success. If this capitulation to the tendencies it sets out to mock is predictable, at least Greek does so knowingly, fitfully. By taking this well-worn fantasy to completely absurd extremes—the adrenaline-infused brawl in a furry-walled Las Vegas penthouse, the cringe-inducingly awkward revenge threesome, the winking parade of cameos—doesn’t Greek almost (but not quite) undermine its vision of the record label peon as rock legend, the information-economy capitalist parasite as superstar artist? Can we pardon this problematic fantasy because it so overtly presents itself as contented status quo pastiche rather than critical parody?
I know what you mean, Ben (not literally; I don’t understand your last question): this bromantic, road-tripping pub-crawl winds down to a major buzzkill. I mean, here I am, vicariously enjoying an escapist, recession-era celebration of champagne guzzling, hotel trashing, and chauffeured living when suddenly the “dark side of rock and roll (a.k.a London/NYC/LA)” is “exposed” and heteronormativity, celebrated. Movies have to apologize for having fun now? The problem is that Greek never apologizes for what it should. I’m with you, Ben, that it’s a load of laughs, but I still think it’s a lot like Bruno in that regard: it requires us to ignore, a little bit, its ideological darkside—namely, its treatment of women.
You saw this movie before I did, and described it to me as “still pretty sexist, but…much more honest about that sexism than Funny People or, obviously, Hangover” but I’m not so sure. (Well, except pretty much any movie is more honest about its sexism than The Fucking Hangover.) Yeah, there’s a certain knowingness, mostly seen in Aldous’ ex: the self-objectification of her music and videos (especially the one about wanting anal sex) is a great send-up of female pop stars, and the portrait of her hanging in their NY apartment with a black-eye is an equally smart gag—and funny! Oh, and then there’s that threesome, in which Daphne gets empowering revenge on her philandering boyfriend by forcing him to watch her screech with pleasure at Aldous’ cunnilingus skills.
But that scene isn’t so empowering after all, is it? It ends with Daphne deeply disturbed, along with the two men. (The boys also share a kiss, the culmination of all the gay-but-not-gay tension carrying through the movie, from the “mind fucking” to the rape-by-bag-of-heroin to the rape-by-dildo in Las Vegas.) In Apatow movies, the men desperately need to “grow up,” which usually involves getting the girl by being more mature. Here, growing up means taking control of the girls you can and dumping the ones you can’t.
Aldous grows up by getting over his ex—that bitch!!—and Aaron by dominating his girlfriend. “Don’t say anything,” is the last line Aaron speaks to Daphne; essentially, he tells her to shut up, and she does! And even though she has a whole other scene with him, she just sits there smiling dumbly, neither speaking nor being spoken to. Isn’t her big mouth what got them in so much trouble in the first place? Whether demanding, early on, that they move to Seattle together or break-up, or encouraging the threesome that Aldous suggests and which almost leads to his suicide? Speaking of that almost-suicide, Ben, did you notice the prominent CitiGroup logo behind Aldous as he asked himself the “to be or not to be” question? What did you make of that against all of the other corporate cameos?
“Citibank: a bank worth living for.” I dunno, Henry, I guess that’s what happens when you sell product placement slots for virtually every scene in a movie about a formerly rebellious sell-out rock star: some are more favorably integrated than others. Greek is a thoroughly optimized multimedia package about the dysfunctional process of assembling another fully bankable multiplatform media event (Aldous Snow’s comeback). That’s part of why I keep coming back to that other bromance blockbuster (“brombuster”?), Funny People, because both are ostensibly about characters with antagonistic relationships to the late capitalist entertainment industry, but are simultaneously among the most egregiously and terrifyingly complex, horizontally-integrated, ad-saturated super-packages I can think of aside from, like, 30 Rock and Minority Report.
Aaron hints at this contradiction early on, when he pitches the idea for Aldous’s show to Diddy, who has just told one employee to “shut the fuck up,” and ordered another to throw his cell phone out of the conference room. After explaining that Aldous is “the last real rock star,” Aaron asks, rhetorically: “Isn’t that why we’re in this business, because we love music?” You can imagine how quaint and boneheaded Diddy—a man whose whole musical career consists of bragging about his accumulated wealth—finds that sentiment. Presumably what ends up winning him over instead are Aaron’s calculations as to the renewed sales of Aldous’s back catalog—except probably for his hilarious career-killing album African Child, which opens the film.
All of which recaps the familiar story of the co-opted and commercialized rebel artist, except that there’s no original transgression in this fiction. Not to get all Marxist on you Henry (too late), but Greek is a funny though fundamentally regressive fantasy about commodifying the art of a fucked up young person that fetishizes the very process of commercialization that it depicts while never even risking subversion because its rebel rockstar is a fictitious parody (whaaaat?). Put more succinctly, the film performs a fake version of the capitalist containment of art that it pretends to portray. It’s like an inescapable accelerated cultural cycle that eats its own tail (and tale) and reserves no room for escape—something like if parody movie franchisee David Zucker made a movie about Mel Brooks making a fake Mel Brooks movie. It’s a mind-fuck I’m enjoying less and less the more I think about it. What about you, Henry, don’t you feel like this level of capitalist mind-fucking is less than consensual?