Writer-director Nicholas Stoller regards British comedian Russell Brand as an honorary member of the “Jew Tang Clan,” the creative posse led by comedy wunderkind Judd Apatow. Members of the clan, including actors Jason Segel and Jonah Hill, have riffed on their heritage in films such as “Superbad” and “Knocked Up.” Who can forget Seth Rogen kvelling that the buff Israeli agent in “Munich” would help him and his buddies score?
Brand’s comedy is equally bawdy but very British, yet he appears to be at home with the Apatow-niks. In fact, he was so compellingly outrageous in his supporting role as the rock star Aldous Snow, who steals Segel’s girlfriend in Stoller’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” that Stoller created a spinoff revolving around him.
“Get Him to the Greek,” which opened last week to mostly good reviews, reintroduces the fictional Aldous in the midst of a career slump. A notorious drug addict, he hopes to make a comeback with a 10th-anniversary concert at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Charged with getting him to the Greek is Aaron Green (Hill), a wide-eyed music industry lackey who must escort the out-of-control rocker from London to Los Angeles. A manic 72-hour road trip ensues, involving threesomes, bathroom sex and other high jinks typical of the raunchy-but-sweet Apatow school.
Along the way, it’s no accident that Hill’s character comes off as a nice Jewish boy. “He is the ‘me’ character in the movie,” Stoller, a 36-year-old Harvard graduate, explained. Not that he has ever indulged in three straight days of carnal excess. He describes himself as “definitely a nerd” who spent awkward adolescent years as one of few Jews at his WASPy boarding school. Like Segel, he was prone to excessive crying over romantic breakups, which helped inspire the blubbering protagonist of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Stoller is now married with a 2-year-old daughter and multiple movie projects, which doesn’t leave much room for wild partying, even if he were inclined to do so.
Thus, “Get Him to the Greek” is based on how the filmmaker imagines he might behave if allowed to indulge his fantasy of hanging out with a rock star. It would be a case of wish fulfillment gone awry. “The first night would be incredibly exciting and fun,” Stoller mused. “But then he’d wake you up the next morning, after one hour’s sleep, and want you to do it all over again.”
The comedy in “Greek” stems from the mismatched bro-mance between the protagonists: “You’re waiting for Aaron to blow up at Aldous, but he keeps trying to be cool and to keep up in this world he has no business being in — though you can see in his eyes he’s in extreme pain,” Stoller said. “My editor and I had a joke that any time we’re torturing Jonah, we’d get a laugh.”
It’s difficult to imagine the droll, occasionally self-effacing Stoller hanging out with Brand, a comedian who has achieved notoriety as a womanizer and former junkie in Britain, as outlined in his memoir, “My Booky Wook.” In fact, Brand was sacked by MTV for arriving at work dressed as Osama bin Laden the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “That was obviously a poor decision, but Russell is a different person now,” Stoller said. “If someone does some comedy stunt that’s in bad taste, but feels bad about it afterward, then I forgive them,” he said, in a manner befitting a nice Jewish boy.
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The filmmaker hadn’t heard of Brand, or his other sackings due to ill-advised pranks, when the Brit strutted into his audition for “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” several years ago. Stoller and co-screenwriter Segel were looking for a bookish type to play Segel’s romantic rival. “So we thought the casting director was playing a prank on us,” he recalled of Brand’s appearance. “Russell was dressed in tight leather pants, about 1,800 chains, big hair, a bunch of different belts, and his shirt unbuttoned all the way down to his navel. He said, ‘I’ve only had a chance to take a currrrsory glance at the script,” Stoller said, imitating Brand’s languid accent, “which was an odd thing to say to the film’s director and star.”
Even so, the audition proved so hilarious that the filmmakers decided to cast Brand and to rewrite his character as a rock star, suiting the comic’s over-the-top persona.
“Get Him to the Greek” is even more directly inspired by Brand’s real-life misadventures. “I’d interview Russell as I was writing the script,” Stoller said. “I’d ask about his addiction; what would cause him to fall off the wagon or how he would treat people if he needed drugs in the moment.”
In one sequence, Aldous orders Aaron to smuggle heroin onto an airplane by inserting a balloonful into his bum; Stoller said the gross-out factor in this sequence — and others — isn’t gratuitous.
“For a story to be ‘true’ about rock stardom, you need to have gross things happen,” he said. “If you read any rock ’n’ roll biography, they’re just disgusting; I read ‘The Dirt,’ about Motley Crue, and what they did puts our movie to shame.”
Stoller admits he was initially a bit nervous that viewers might perceive the film as glorifying drugs. “I was concerned that just the word ‘heroin’ might turn people off,” he said. “Addiction is a serious and scary thing, and you don’t want it to kill your comedy. But even though a lot of crazy things happen, ‘Get Him to the Greek’ is ultimately an anti-drug movie,” he said. “Aldous turns out to be this kind of lonely, unhappy guy who needs a lot of help.”