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Three stooges: (l-r) Hill, Combs and Brand in Get Him to the Greek.

Seen One . . .

By John Rodat

Get Him to the Greek

Directed by Nicholas Stoller

An older has-been is rescued from his self-destructive tendencies by a well-meaning and loyal fan who is placed in charge of the once-great artist. Along the way, the custodial character loses some of his inhibitions, and steps out of his comfort zone far enough to be completely disoriented and tempted to abandon a core value. His refusal, ultimately, to compromise ethically inspires the despairing former star to retrieve the remaining fragment of his talent and to apply his creative spark to productive ends again.

Now, pick a young actor: Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Mark-Linn Baker. Pick a larger-than-life and charismatic costar: Russell Brand, Adam Sandler, Peter O’Toole. Throw in parallel emotional conflicts: say, the competing professional and personal ambitions of a young couple as viewed against the damage celebrity can inflict on romantic and/or familial love. Oh, and a handful of goofball and/or wisecracking ensemble players couldn’t hurt (the chance of Aziz Ansari inclusion is approximately 75 percent).

What have you got? Get Him to the Greek? Funny People? My Favorite Year?

Exactly.

In Get HIm to the Greek, the setting is the world of rock & roll. Russell Brand reprises the role of Aldous Snow from writer-director Nicholas Stoller’s previous collaboration with writer-actor Jason Segel, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Aldous’ record label is attempting to jump-start its own lagging sales with a blowout anniversary concert celebrating a legendary performance given by Aldous’ band at L.A’s Greek Theatre.

Aaron Green (Jonah Hill), the young label rep who concocted the plan, is sent by his boss (a surprisingly funny Sean Combs) to retrieve the reckless and unpredictable rocker and get him from London to L.A.—in time and tolerably sober. Futures lie in the balance, and antics ensue.

Whether or not you enjoy Get Him to the Greek will depend almost entirely on how you feel about the two stars. There is little—almost nothing, at all, in fact—new or surprising about the plot. The presentation of the ecosystem of pop music is mostly just convenient (which is a huge missed opportunity, comedically), and the other players, with the exception of Combs, are given little time or weight.

I found the leads serviceable. Hill is a natural and likeable shlub (even less heroic than the popular Seth Rogen). And with one caveat, I found Brand highly entertaining. I did not, however, find him particularly convincing in his musical-peformance scenes. Interestingly, he is credited with his own singing, and he’s just fine in that respect. But Brand’s credible glam-trash rock-star appearance didn’t gibe with the material his band performed, songs written by a team including Dan Bern and Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers and the voice of “That Thing You Do.”

Bern and Viola also wrote the bulk of the songs for the very funny Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. But where that movie’s unapologetically parodic vibe was matched by its songs perfectly, Get Him to the Greek fits its original music less well. And because the movie does attempt some emotional seriousness, that friction is disruptive.

Still, Brand is fun to watch and listen to, and his work with Hill covered many of the faults of the script—and the awkwardness of tonal shifts.

The Lives of Women

Mother and Child

Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

Mother and Child begins in a way that reminds viewers of Juno. A very young couple tentatively explore each others’ lips in her bedroom, a turntable spinning an unheard song in the background. Cut to the next scene: the girl, very pregnant, is in a room full of other teens in similar situations, followed immediately thereafter by the delivery itself, a faint glimpse of a pair of tiny feet and flailing legs, and then that squalling package being borne far away. Cut to today, and 51 year old Karen (Annette Bening) wakes with a start, realizes that 37 years have passed, and forlornly feels her way to her aged mother’s bed, where she tries to get back to normal routine.

This haunting prologue underscores the haunting memories and regrets and “what ifs” that define Karen’s life. A competent physical therapist, Karen goes about her work caring for elderly patients but barely registering anybody else, until a new colleague, Paco (Jimmy Smits), makes what to her is an audacious move. He says hello and makes simple conversation. They end up having coffee, but that is aborted when Karen mistakes his basic chit-chat for judgment calls. “I am not a difficult person,” she says through pursed lips, and the audience giggles. At home, Karen tries to bring up conversation about her daughter to her mother, who doesn’t bite.

Meanwhile, in L.A., Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is a lawyer whose take-no-prisoners approach has her on the fast track to her dream of a seat on the circuit court. Her new boss Paul (Samuel L. Jackson, refreshingly unmenacing or cartoonish) is impressed, but warns Elizabeth that her unorthodox method of switching firms every so often isn’t the way to go, but she stares him down with the news that she does everything her way, from the time she emancipated herself from her adoptive parents and changed her name at age 17. Obviously, Elizabeth is Karen’s daughter, and we are left to wonder not if, but when, they will meet.

Meanwhile, Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband of four years have concluded it’s time to adopt, and set upon the often prickly process of engaging 20-year-old college student Ray that they are the best prospects for loving parents. Ray asks tough, probing questions, and Lucy, to her credit, is brutally honest. Lucy’s mother questions whether she’s setting herself up for yet another disappointment, and wonders whether Lucy can love somebody else’s baby as much as one she gives birth to herself, setting off one of the movie’s ongoing themes: What makes the maternal connection, what defines love?

The movie is long and rambling, and often harks back to the three-hankie movies of the ’30s—which for me is a compliment. It’s amazing to me that it was written and directed by a man, since it’s brimming over with little moments and workaday routines—of caring for babies and the elderly, of looking back to a passionate moment, or mulling over a loss—that pulse through the daily lives and thoughts of women. These are moments we don’t often see in movies anymore.

Keeping Mother and Child from veering into the melodramatic are finely tuned performances by all, especially its three lead actresses. Washington, in the smallest role, has the difficult task of bringing to life a buttoned-down perfectionist on a quest for a baby. Ultimately, Washington wins us over, enabling us to see Lucy’s many layers. It’s hard to explain what is probably the most gut-wrenching moment in the film without giving away details, but let’s just say that Washington leaves no doubt of either her character’s humanity or her own acting chops. Watts, too, has a difficult role, as Elizabeth is largely the type of bitch-on-wheels who beds any guy, no matter the situation, just because she can. Her lack of empathy is shocking, but the film’s writing is such that Elizabeth’s defenses are peeled away to finally reveal a vulnerability, even a softening toward the teen mom who supposedly abandoned her. Holding the various story threads together is Bening, who blossoms from repressed, uptight automaton to somebody willing to risk taking a chance on love and, yes, loss. The movie’s finale may be a little too coincidental for some tastes, but Mother and Child is a supremely rewarding narrative that blends old-time storytelling with modern angst in just the right proportions.

—Laura Leon

 

Game Over

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Directed by Mike Newell

Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) clambers up walls, skips along the backs of horses, and wields a sword and shield with the turbo-charged agility of a video-game hero. Which he is—in his other incarnation as the protagonist of the Prince of Persia video games. In this big-screen adaptation (PoP creator Jordan Mechner contributed to the script), Dastan is the rambunctious adopted son of the king of Persia (Ronald Pickup), who has two older sons. The king also has a brother, Nizam (Ben Kingsley), who acts as his advisor. While Nizam schemes, the royal family almost comes to blows over a planned invasion of the city of Alumet and its hidden arsenal of weapons of unimaginable destruction. The city does a have a secret weapon, but it’s not for war: It’s a sacred dagger that contains magical sand that can turn back time. But the Persians don’t know that, and after the peaceable city is conquered, Dastan carries the dagger as trophy. His brothers return with a captive, the beauteous and feisty Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton, who does sultry just as well as she did Strawberry in Quantum of Solace).

It’s a rousing start for an action adventure on its way to being a faster and brawnier version of an Indiana Jones film. But just as it’s decided which prince the princess should be forced to marry, the king is murdered—in a ploy a Smurf could see through. Kicking into a higher level as the unjustly accused Dastan makes a digitalized escape, Prince of Persia becomes another ungainly hybrid of gaming strategies (the dagger even has a push-button release), CGI calamity (though not quite as over-the-top as in The Scorpion King) and traditional adventure-story intrigue ramped by the possibility of a mushroom sandstorm of nuclear proportions.

Because it’s directed by Mike Newell, a specialist in ensemble relationships, the characters have more life than any previous game-to-film transfer, and Gyllenhaal and Arterton almost get romantic as Dastan and Tamina turn from bickering adversaries to swooning allies during their enforced partnership. Not only do they have to elude the Persian army, but also a band of assassins with mystical powers and an entrepreneurial sheik (Alfred Molina) who operates a black-market oasis complete with ostrich racetrack. Molina is so shamelessly comic, and Kingsley so deliciously unctuous, that the inane dialogue is even more of a disappointment, especially considering how the script skips the more ingenious plot devices of the games to follow a numbingly predictable course. Even the power of the magic sand gets shorted, as the dagger’s do-overs add special effects and little more to the narrative. The film whips up a hell of a sand devil, but viewers are left in the dust.

—Ann Morrow


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