Okay. So. Here’s the thing. I’m a middle-aged woman. I’m not cool. I’m not hip. I probably never was. I don’t drink or use drugs myself, and neither do my two daughters. Our straight-edge sobriety is not a decision based on religious convictions, I assure you, but I’ll reserve my reasons for a more private forum than this one. My life has not been untouched by the ravages of drugs and alcohol. I have seen many lives destroyed, waylaid, and laid waste. While I’ve not had to wage any personal battles with personal demons, I’ve watched close-up as others struggle mightily to overcome theirs; many have lost the war. People I love have died, and I’ve witnessed the long-lasting repercussions of that profound loss on their families and friends firsthand. My record collection includes many examples of the blissfully enhanced and otherwise enlightened by-product of countless musicians’ flagrant experimentation, immersion, and even tragic self-destruction. I’m grateful to have been spared myself and always saddened when another bright light bites the proverbial and inevitable dust. Here’s the bottom line. While drugs, drink, and rock make up the very same Venn diagram, I’ll just take the rock, thank you very much.
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Producer and purveyor of the popular Zeitgeist Judd Apatow adds another crowd-pleasing link to his unbroken chain of box office behemoths with this unsubtle sequel to “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Forgetting “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was easy for me, but forgetting “Get Him To The Greek” will prove a lot harder to do. A record company junior exec (Jonah Hill) accompanies rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) to a comeback concert at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater. There’s a great movie somewhere in this rambunctious, raucous, high-spirited, heartfelt mess, and I’d love to recommend it, but it’s buried in a terrifically disturbing pile of thoughtless, casual, careless, sloppy, dopey, drugged-out, barefaced evil.
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The Defending Champion
Cameron Crowe tells his own slightly fictionalized autobiographical coming of age story. Rolling Stone Magazine hires fifteen year old William Miller to tour with Stillwater, a rock band on the cusp of fame. Remarkably well observed, warm, witty, subtly written and performed, accurate and convincingly inside both the rock biz and the magazine biz, each moment feels genuine and fully realized. William plays the slippery fence, sensitive observer, reporter, friend and fan. It’s a delicate balance to sustain, and William learns more than he wants to know about life and love and loss.
The world is getting worse. I realize that my perception is colored by my advancing age and my own inevitable glorification of the halcyon days past, but I think it’s also true. The world is less civilized, less kind, less gentle, and the vulgarization of popular taste is either an unhappy result or partial cause of the precipitous downslide. Judd Apatow’s films capture something in the culture that grates on me; they have heart, but they also try to deliver on a boyish crudeness, an acceptance of careless behavior with little to no consequence. It’s the having it both ways that rankles so much; I would pay no attention to these films at all if they didn’t try so hard to be sweet. But the sweetness is buried in so much profanity and offensiveness; not liking these films makes me feel like a prude, and that’s not a feeling I enjoy. I don’t think I’m being a prude when I object to portraying heroin use and trafficking as a comic convention; there’s nothing funny about forcing an employee to shove a baggie of heroin up his ass while in line at an airport. I’m sorry. That’s not okay with me. The fact that the movie makes that incident not just okay but just another story beat in its salacious, bawdy, saucy naughtiness concerns me. Forcing that same someone to take a cocktail of drugs including meth, heroin, and angel dust strikes me as even more appalling. Making light of such drug abuse is just plain wrong.
But that’s enough soapbox moralizing for now. Let’s talk about what’s wrong with the movie. Plenty. There are a few cute cameos, but the rock videos (Jackie Q’s and Aldous Snow’s) are simply nowhere near up to snuff. Parodies and homemade convincing rock videos appear routinely on youtube, but the versions in the movie are bogus and lame, edited and shot with absolutely no feel, no love for the genre. The rock songs too are lame; all the build-up to the concert and performances of the unforgivably thoughtless rock star leave you expecting greatness, and what’s delivered is shamefully bad pastiche, pure cheesy generic badness.
For those who’ve seen the film, here’s a question I couldn’t adequately answer for myself. Perhaps more than one actually. When Aaron’s doctor/paramour (Elisabeth Moss) consents to a revenge/brush-with-greatness/hotness three-way, where’s her doctorly safe sex caution? Where are the condoms? Where is her brain? What the eff is happening? How does this encounter not color the rest of the film? Is all forgiven in a haze of drug-induced intellectual torpor I cannot fathom in the depths of my sobriety? How far is too far? Are there no limits to how low this movie can go before it hits bottom?
Russell Brand is lovely. He’s funny and charming, and I love him. I do. He’s a cad and a bounder, and had the film remained broad and funny, I could accept him on those terms. He could provide a life lesson or two for his innocent and hapless stooge. Instead though, the movie’s chasing two incompatible rabbits. The raw and racy coming of age story of a hapless schmuck and the heart-tugging rise and fall of a drug addict and lonely (famous) guy. The two stories overlap and not comfortably either; their tones and ambitions conflict and left me with a terrible taste in my mouth. You can’t have it all, Mr. Apatow and your minions. You can’t make an anti-drug movie that makes drugs seem like so much freaky fun. Something, everything, must land fully to make pathos work; instead, the brainless and coarse comedy reduces the real heart of the film to bathos.
Unlike the much-heralded Aldous Snow, Cameron Crowe’s Stillwater delivers. The music they make is good. When Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) threatens to jump in his drug-fueled haze, we feel something real is happening. (Shifts of tone muddy the waters when Aldous follows suit and jumps himself; we’re not sure how to feel even when he’s bleeding in the pool right before our eyes. The film has shaken our faith in it to take us to the right place; that’s an unspoken covenant that’s hard to mend once it’s broken. Like Aldous and Aaron, it meanders off to Vegas and takes its sweet time even when the clock is ticking.)
When “Almost Famous” William (Patrick Fugit) feels betrayed and despondent, disillusioned and alone, we feel his pain. The laughs are earned and not easy. The film exists in a very real world. Jonah Hill’s Aaron remains something of a blank slate; he’s led on a crazy ride, but none of his picaresque adventures amount to much. His essential character emerges largely unchanged, perhaps a bit less forlorn but essentially the same slow-on-the-uptake dope he was in the beginning. While he manages to make some changes in his life, they don’t ring especially true; it may well be that limitations in the actor inhibit the growth of the character.
“Almost Famous” is filled with uniformly excellent performances; Philip Seymour Hoffman oozes the kind of bitter real-world worldliness that’s rarely captured on film, and Frances McDormand plays a mom you know before she even enters the frame. Kate Hudson, Crudup, and Fugit execute star-making turns, taking terrific material and running with it all the way home.
For sex, drugs, rock and roll the way they used to be in gentler days, I’ll take Cameron Crowe. A gentleman. A scholar. Almost Famous. A treasure. A relic of our pre-9/11 planet. When the world wasn’t irreparably broken and I thought the best of times might still be ahead. The world is cruder and nastier and more vulgar now. I miss the way things used to be. I do.