The Culture-Work of the Apparently Random Reference to Africa: Get Him to the Greek

by zunguzungu

Get Him to the Greek is just a total train-wreck of a film. A lot of movies recently seem to be doing this thing where their comedy runs at complete dissonant and oblivious cross-purposes to their drama (I’m thinking of The Other Guys specifically), where the film both loathes and makes fun of and has total merciless contempt for its characters and then still wants you to sympathize with those people, with all the innocent cluelessness of a baby that wants its cereal again after it has smashed the bowl on the wall. 

Get Him to the Greek also does this. Aldous Snow is a cruel and shallow man, his ex is a cartoon, and also we’re supposed to be concerned for their relationship or something. Jonah Hill’s character is passive and weak and boring and his girlfriend is almost a real character in the movie, but then, decidly, not. I can’t be bothered to even list the other characters who failed to make me laugh or rouse my interest. That’s not only because the movie spends so much time demonstrating what awful people they are, though; there is also nothing at stake in any of it: Sergio’s “I’ll be fine” speech sets the tone from the start, and even if the Jonah Hill character were to lose his job, it would… well, it would pretty much solve his primary domestic problem, because he’d simply relocate to Seattle with his girlfriend, the doctor, and probably find some kind of job at no more stupid and painful than the one he’s got. Except that there’s some kind of struggling for his masculinity thing going on and… (yawn). Sorry, I’ve lost interest.

Aldous Snow has a good moment or two, which I’m tempted to attribute to the fact that Russell Brand performs that character every day of his life, and is really good at it. In fact, the only reason I care about the movie at all is because, at his best, there’s a hint of what made these deleted scenes from Forgetting Sarah Marshall so good (which I blogged about here):

In these scenes, Aldous Snow is not only an alien life form, but he’s completely happy to be one: he’s a star, and he understands what this means — in the way that Russell Brand does — and has thoroughly accepted being at the center of the senseless vortex of infinite consumption that constitutes him as such. Destroying a cheap lamp is nothing compared to how much gasoline he uses up on his private jet, after all, and he understands that at a level that no one else does, or can. He’s at peace with it, and completely aware of what the cost to your humanity is to be that kind of star, because he’s paid that price, and he’s happy with the choice. These two scenes brilliantly show, then, why these two will not work as a couple, and how he comes to be aware of that, and how he intentionally tests her to see. It’s unfortunate that they were removed from FSM, actually; like most of the deleted scenes, they make a good movie a lot better.

Get Him to the Greek only has a few moments like that, in which you see his calculating mind silently observing and reacting to the maelstrom — and the moment when Jonah Hill recognizes that he’s “smart” is key, or might have been  — but they’re so few and far between, and so buried by the movie’s stupid lust to revel in the bacchanalia. And while the point of the character in FSM was to show Jason Segal’s character the kind of human being you’d have to become to be the kind of star he secretly wanted to be, or thought he did — maybe — this movie just wants to have its kicks and then puritanically condemn that desire by punishing Aldous Snow and making him repent.

The movie had, of course, already been thoroughly ruined by its own boringness long before the stupid behind-the-music turn at the end — in which suddenly Snow hates his life as a star, and realizes it’s all shallow and evil and lonely, or something — but this really was the rock bottom moment for me. I wanted him to jump off the building, just so I could feel something again. Basically, as Ms. Zunguzungu pointed out, the movie becomes Funny People, another terrible film in which loathsome characters are paraded in front of us as sympathetic (and un-funniness is named funny), and in which a whole bunch of bad behavior played for laughs retroactively gets yoked into reinforcing some kind of stupidly smug and unearned moral come-uppance. At least it was shorter than Funny People.

If Aldous Snow really was a musical genius, then maybe this would work a little better; Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown does something similar, and while it’s far from one of Allen’s best movies, it is much more successful at giving us a repugnant character whose music is still beautiful, and at letting those facts co-exist in the way that they should. There is nothing attractive about the character Sean Penn plays, except for his music, and while his music is divine, it doesn’t redeem him. This movie, on the other hand, needs to redeem Aldous Snow for the sin of being Aldous Snow, which kind of defeats the purpose of having an Aldous Snow.

And this is where “The African Child” come in, the song and album that destroys Snow’s career at the beginning of the movie:

(here’s the whole music video).

A better version of the movie they seem to be trying to make, I think, might make this song signify the beginning of a kind of re-awakening in his personality, his sense that — in sharp contrast to the person who revels in senseless consumerism and doesn’t care — there’s something obscene about his existence. It would still ruin the character to do so, of course, but at least it might take the movie in an interesting direction; the character defined by his conscienceless ambition to be a star suddenly grows a conscience! But it doesn’t do that, or at least it stops doing that; at the end of the movie, he realizes — incoherently — that even though being a star is empty and shallow, it’s also beautiful and wonderful. And Jonah Hill, too, is both disillusioned with Aldous Snow and also bonds with him, or something. It’s stupid.

Still, as Moacir pointed out to me on twitter, what’s interesting about the movie is that invocation of Africa at the start. This isn’t the first time Aldous Snow has done faux-social consciousness; in FSM, his song “We’ve Got to Do Something” is already a pitch-perfect satire of the genre, particularly in the way it’s manifestly not even a little bit about social consciousness. It’s about sex, as all his songs cartoonishly are. Social consciousness is, at most, a metaphor for sex, because everything is a metaphor for sexual desire for him.

“African Child” is an interesting exception because it’s not a satire of Snow’s shallowness and obliviousness to it: it’s a satire of his failed (but slightly self-aware) effort to try for genuine introspection, his sense that there’s some truth to him other than sex trying to be born. And however terribly bad he is at producing that message — because he’s a terribly shallow person — he is trying to break out of his own mold, to evolve as a musician into something new. There’s an “African child” inside of him trying to be born, in which “African child” symbolizes authenticity, a baseline for Ur-humanity in its perfect deprivation and radical bodily discomfort. It’s the only song he does that isn’t cartoonishly about sex, and while it is cartoonish, it isn’t trying to be, which clarifies what it is that a pop star like him cannot, under any circumstances, ever be allowed to do: measure the distance between the fantasy and the reality. Even if that “reality” is simply a fantasy of the real — produced through a set of clichéd stock images of Africa — his fans understand that what he’s trying to do in that video is be other than he obviously still is. They see a superfluously hyper-wealthy pop star struggling to be a poor African child. And in the very act of trying to be other than he is, he demonstrates that embodying the fantasy of stardom has left him empty, that it is a fantasy. And so they reject it, and it fails, despite being no worse than the rest of his comically terrible songs. Jonah Hill’s boiling fury with the song on the plane illustrates the betrayal that song actually is, for fans who need him to be an icon of the kind of conspicuous hyper-consumption they can never aspire to.

As I said, I think the movie is still a failure and terrible. And this is particularly so because it spends so much time — towards the end — first condemning Aldous for being a star and then re-building the pedestal it eventually closes the film by leaving him on. The film is incoherent because it decides to embrace the easy, self-flattering narrative that stars need us, that they really only want to be like us, and that we’re the real moral center of their universe (making our desire for what they have a perfect, closed circuit of accomplished desire), and in this sense, it kills what was interesting about the character and collapses into incoherence. But before it does that, it almost accidentally contains an interesting moment of self-critique, and it does it through the symbolic meaning of “Africa” in contemporary American culture: the axiomatic reminder that it can all be taken away, that we are bodies who can die and be hungry. That has almost nothing to do with the real continent of Africa or Africans themselves, of course; it has only to do with the work that image is made to do in the Western nostalgia for what “Africa” is mistaken to represent. But it tells us something important about what Africa is mistaken to represent that a Hollywood movie which starts there can only collapse around itself from that point on, desperately trying to forget the thing that it inadvertently revealed in the opening scene, its own status as narcissistic fantasy.