MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Get Him to the Greek and Breathless

Get Him to The Greek (Three Stars)
U.S.; Nicholas Stoller, 2010

Get Him to the Greek — the latest from the Judd Apatow juggernaut — is an often funny “guys-on-the-loose” comedy with, as you’d expect, something extra. Writer-director Nicholas Stoller (who made another Apatow movie, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, source of one Greek’s lead characters, Aldous Snow) gives the movie a shrewdly observed corporate rock n’ roll background, an ironic/glamorous sheen and some juicy roles for some talented comic actors: notably Russell Brand as Snow, a once tee-totaling, now off-the-wagon rock star, and Jonah Hill as one of his biggest fans, record company intern Aaron Green — who as we soon learn, has been charged with getting his idol to the Greek. (Theatre, that is.)

Aaron, a brainy, likable, good-hearted and somewhat weight-challenged employee at Snow’s label Pinnacle, responds to a nightmarish brain-storming session by sadistic Pinnacle exec Sergio Roma (Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, really cooking) with a hot idea. Aaron suggests that Snow return to the scene of one of his biggest triumphs, L A.‘s Greek Theatre, where Aldous and his band, Infant Sorrow, ten years earlier, recorded an epochal live performance album, that apparently rivaled B. B. King at the Regal, James Brown at the Apollo, and The Who Live at Leeds. Vibrant with aficionado enthusiasm, Aaron excitedly hails Snow as “the last remaining rock star” (forgetting Mick, Keith, Paul, Ringo, U2, Aretha, The Boss, and Spinal Tap, among many others), and sells the idea of a tenth anniversary re-concert, thereby scoring a publicity blitz, possibly laying down another classic album, and enhancing the whole Aldous Snow Pinnacle catalogue.

There’s just one problem. Getting him to the Greek.

Snow, you see, has reliability issues. Once a yoga-spouting narcissist, now a dissolute wreck on booze and smack, the ace rocker has responded to the catastrophic critical-commercial flame-out of his pretentious concept album “African Child” — in which he tried to re-image himself as an “African white Christ from Space” — and the subsequent crash-and-burn of his “ideal” marriage to beautiful-and-sexy top model-rocker Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), by retreating into a world of nonstop revelry, misbehavior and rampaging debauchery. Getting him anywhere, including out of bed in the morning, will be quite a chore.

And Aaron, in return for his inspired notion, has now been charged by his scary boss Sergio with the assignment of guiding Snow away from the fleshpots through a hectic three day schedule that include an interview/concert appearance with Meredith Vieira on “Today,“ a detour though Las Vegas (where Aldous’s dad Jonathan, played by Colm Meaney, plays backup for a Rat Pack tribute, and the final grand climax at the Greek. Needless to say, Aaron fails at some parts of his assignment, succeeds in others, and, along the way, bonds with his idol in sometimes startling ways.

This is a terrific premise for a wild, unbuttoned buddy-buddy comedy, and Getting Him to the Greek mostly milks it smartly. The show is loaded with dead-on satiric jibes at the music and TV industries, crammed with cameos of celebrities amusingly playing themselves (everyone from Pink and Christina Aguilera to Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman, as another guest on “Today”) and some genuinely hilarious gags — notably the limousine scene where Aaron downs whiskey after whiskey to keep Snow sober, the Today Show appearance where Aaron runs around madly trying to find anyone who remembers the lyrics to the despised African Child (which Snow has forgotten), and practically every scene stolen by Combs’ Sergio, the boss from L. A. Hell and the Nobel laureate of the mind-fuck.

The movie also has characters both comic and convincing — and even, occasionally moving. Brand’s Snow — whose name oddly suggests literary legends more than rock ones (British novelists Aldous Huxley and C. P. Snow) — is believably fatuous in his blissed-out African Child misadventure, believably messed-up in his current orgiastic decline. (I didn’t believe the climax at the Greek, but I’m not sure anyone could have pulled it off.) With his Satanic locks and hyper-slim physique, Brand, who sings all his songs, suggests a classic star-gone-to-seed, but he also makes us believe Snow can rise, and rock, to the occasion.

In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Snow was more of a Spinal Tap-ish rock star ass, and Hill was a creepy waiter with a massive fan-crush on him. Turning Hill into a nicer, saner guy here may — he has an equally nice medico wife here named Daphne (Elisabeth Moss) — may sacrifice some darker laughs. But it actually grounds the movie more and sharpens the comedy. We need a relatively Candidesque guy like Aaron to navigate us through all the dicier, nastier, slimier moments of Greek,” such as the balls-out scenes where Snow coerces Aaron into scoring some heroin for him, and later blackmails him into jamming the smack up his ass to get it through airport customs. Here the humor seems dark indeed, as it also does in the Las Vegas orgy scene, complete with dildo. (I hasten to add that Get Him to the Greek has an unmistakable anti-drug message, and that it seems to be anti-dildo as well.)

Rose Byrne skewers Jackie Q and glam-celebrity very neatly, and Colm Meaney, in his rowdy turn as Snow’s dad, reminds us what a grand Irish character actor can do with a good booze scene — even if this one goes a bit over the edge. And Combs is really amazing as the malevolent Sergio, even bringing off the scenes where he appears as Aaron’s nightmare vision, champing up his own little heads. I don’t think Don Cheadle could have done this part better.

Director Stoller knows how to go for the barfs and the sleaze, and in the now-classic Apatow manner, how to mix them up with sentiment and compassion. And the production is surprisingly toney. Stoller uses Wes Anderson’s sharp cinematographer Robert Yeoman, and Peter Greenaway’s brilliant production designer Jan Roelfs (of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and her Lover) and they both make excellent contributions. Still, I think Stoller somewhat flubs the ending, several times. There’s a threesome scene near the concert that doesn’t work at all, either as humor, or sentiment, or character comedy, or even as time-killing smut. And, while I was rooting for Snow at the end, I thought that scene went way over the edge too, though the Crazy Heart-ish coda wasn‘t bad. Still the movie made me laugh. It’ll probably make you laugh too.


Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) Four Stars
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1959

Godard. A Bout de Souffle. Out of breath. Breathless.

A guy named Michel Poiccard steals a car, drives from Marseilles to Paris, ecstatically sings of a girl named Patricia (“Pa-Pa-Pa-Patricia!“), finds a gun, shoots and kills a cop on the road, tries to cash an cashable check, stares at and mimics a Bogart still in front of a cinema, finds Patricia hawking New York Herald Tribunes on the street, goes to her room, bandies with her about love, art, philosophy and William Faulkner (“Between grief and nothing I will take grief“)…


…He smokes endless cigarettes, gets betrayed, runs, gets shot, dies. “Deguelasse,” Michel mutters with his last breath, staring and making faces at Patricia. “I don’t know what it means,’ says Patricia. She turns away from the camera. Finis.


That’s Breathless, the 1959 black-and-white Jean-Luc Godard French film classic that, like Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane — another masterpiece by a revolutionary cineaste still in his 20s — forever changed the ways we look at film, the way moviemakers shot movies and critics wrote about it, and perhaps changed the ways we look at life too.

There’s a key difference though. Welles made us all believe that, if you could get all the tools of the movie industry at your disposal, you could tell stories so magical and deep, dense and rich and multi-leveled, that they’d open up a whole new world. Godard made us believe that, if you’d seen enough movies and were passionate about what you liked, you could grab a camera, find some friends, walk out on the street, and just start shooting. You could ignore much of the old studio apparatus and routine — and make a movie not according to the industry rules and protocols, but right out of your own life and thoughts, tastes and feelings.

Welles was a greater artist than Godard, and Kane the greater movie, still the best of all time in my opinion. But Godard’s feat was probably the more revolutionary: the more empowering, liberating experience. Citizen Kane, as Godard’s friend (later sometime antagonist) François Truffaut once said, probably started more (studio) movie directors on their vocation than any other. But Breathless probably made more people everywhere actually believe they could make movies, whether they worked in a studio or not. There were decades of independent and experimental films before Breathless. But this was the one that, like Kane for the studio movie, made it all look so easy, so effortless. Just walk down a street with a camera. With a gun. With a girl. Just shoot.

Of course it’s not true. Breathless is a very artful piece, and a product of the French film industry. It was made by a director deeply schooled in film history and tradition and technique, even if its celebrated “jump cuts” –jagged editing leaps within a continuous scene, a technique which prompted the Time reviewer to call Breathless a “cubistic thriller” — made Godard’s movie look deliberately ragged and choppy. Actually, the jump cuts were accidental, providential, and not something Godard used all that much in his later films. Here, there was a reason. Godard had shot Breathless too long, needed to cut half an hour or more, and allegedly took his mentor/Breathless cast member Jean-Pierre Melville‘s advice not to cut whole scenes to shave off the extra time, but to cut within scenes. Thence: the jumps.

Godard’s youthful stars Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg (Michel and Patricia) were not nonentities. Belmondo had made ten films before Breathless, including A Double Tour for Godard‘s buddy (and a Breathless technical advisor) Claude Chabrol. He‘d even starred as D‘Artagnan on a TV version of The Three Musketeers. Jean Seberg, while still in her teens, fresh out of Marshalltown Iowa, had made two big Hollywood movies for one of Godard’s favorite directors, Otto (Where the Sidewalk Ends) Preminger, starring in Preminger‘s versions of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan and Francois Sagan‘s novel Bonjour Tristesse.” Even if they were both flops back then (and they look much better today) they were world famous flops.

So Godard wasn’t just walking out on the street with his Cahier du Cinema pals when he made Breathless. But there are as lot of his buddies and “Cahier-ites” involved in it — including not just Truffaut,Chabrol and Melville, and the brilliant young cinematographer Raoul Coutard, but future directors like Philippe De Broca, Jean-Louis Richard, Jean Douchet, Richard Balducci and Daniel Boulanger, who co-wrote De Broca’s King of Hearts and plays the dour cop chasing Michel, Inspector Vital.

Still, on screen Michel and Patricia do look like two good-looking kids who just wandered into the movie off the street. They’re perfect movie lovers, blasé on the surface, dark or heart-broken underneath. They don’t talk the old familiar movie talk. They talk about life and art and politics. They josh and joust with each other. Coutard’s camera drifts around them. They smoke. We never see them screw, but we know they have.

One of the most often-cited, often discussed scenes in Breathless simply shows them lazing around Patricia’s room, staring or jabbering away, under prints of Renoir and Picasso. They don’t seem like a crook/killer and his trollop. They seem like a couple of intellectuals or semi-intellectuals, or a small-time hustler and a rich girl slumming. They’re involved in a thriller plot, taken by Truffaut from a real-life crime story. But it’s as if they just wandered into the thriller, just as they wandered into Patricia’s apartment.

Existentialism and Monogram Pictures (the low-budget studio to which Godard dedicated Breathless) embrace in Breathless. It’s a movie fed by many other movies, even if it suggests something off the cuff, unwinding before us, the machinery of chance. The presence of a gun in the glove compartment of the car Michel steals is utterly fortuitous, the murder (for all we can tell) almost an accident, something that just happened between two kids. Part of the love affair of a Bogie Fan and a Fallen Angel out Where the Sidewalk Ends.

That’s the key to most of Godard’s films of the 60s, which is still regarded (rightly) as his greatest period. It’s a movie-lovers anti-movie, or counter-movie, a defiant act of rebellion by a director who knows the score and deliberately breaks the rules. Breathless came out shortly after Truffaut had revolutionized French film with his own great feature debut, The 400 Blows, the semi-autobiographical tale of a runaway movie-loving delinquent, named Antoine Doinel. And in a way, Breathless, made from the story Truffaut found, is Godard’s 400 Blows, his semi-autobiographical fantasy about a runaway movie-loving delinquent named Michel.

It was also a huge hit, the biggest critical and commercial success of Godard’s career. He never had another smash like Breathless, though, by now, he‘s made almost a hundred films, including, among them, a dozen or so inarguable classics, films like Vivre sa Vie, Pierrot le Fou and Contempt.

He became a Marxist for a while, and a lot of academics in the ‘70s argued that his (then) politics were a major part of what made him great — though Godard’s most blatantly political films, his essays and documentaries from the ’70s, are among his least effective, least memorable. Later, he got drier, more rigorous. “Breathless” is easily the most powerful political movie he ever made, the most heart-wrenching romance. It’s had thousands of children. It still looks as fresh as it did in 1959, though new black-and-white film is almost gone. We look at it today and we think: Anybody can do this. I can do this. Just find some friends. Find a camera. Find your heart. Just shoot.

– Michael Wilmington
June 3, 2010

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon