Appetite for Apatow

Music-biz laughs with Get Him to the Greek. Timeless stories from Akira Kurosawa.

Let’s run down our Super-Slacker summer movie checklist: Funny fat man. Check. Outrageous Brit pop star, dripping putdowns. Check. Hella recreational drug use. Check. Berserk party in Vegas full o’ babes and drunks. Check. Funny fat man’s disapproving wife back home alone. Check. F.F.F’s abusive boss. Check. Loud rock and hip-hop. Oh hell yes. Off-screen penetration of body orifices. ‘Fraid so. Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman. Huh?

Professor Krugman notwithstanding, Get Him to the Greek has everything you need for an entertainingly mindless night at the movies. It’s great to have another Judd Apatow comedy back in the theaters. Really. I mean that sincerely. Almost a whole year has gone by since Funny People and we’ve missed him.

The funny fat man is Jonah Hill, well-traveled star of Superbad, here impersonating a frazzled Los Angeles record label exec/gofer named Aaron Green. Actor Hill is sort of a SethRogen‘s-accident-prone-younger-brother type — his trademark expression is that of a guy who has just sat down in vomit. He is not above acting with his jowls. Aaron’s job is in jeopardy because, as Sergio, the label’s owner (rap demi-god Sean “Puffy/P. Diddy” Combs), explains, no one is buying the shit they’re selling.

But there’s hope. Washed-up English rock singer Aldous Snow (Russell Brand, reprising his character from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which also costarred Hill) needs a career pick-me-up after producing a hilariously awful concept album/video called African Child — it has so many sight and sound gags you’ll need to watch it twice — so Sergio browbeats him into doing a comeback concert at LA’s Greek Theatre. Notorious coaster Aldous has famously sobered up, claims his publicity. Riiight. All Aaron has to do is fly to London, fetch Aldous, and babysit him all the way to the show, two days from now. Har har.

Aaron and Aldous proceed to wallow in every comic cliché ever formulated to describe the lifestyle of spoiled, disdainful, self-destructive, marginally talented, half-bright pop stars. And yet Apatow and writer-director Nicholas Stoller (he also helmed Sarah Marshall) make us laugh at the familiar jokes again. It takes talent to do that. Brand is especially good as Aldous, whose contempt for everyone in the world except his estranged girlfriend Jackie Q (Rose Byrne) and forlorn son Naples (Lino Facioli) masks the usual nice-guy-underneath. But it’s the surface that leaves us howling.

The story picks up incidental characters like a vacuum cleaner acquires dust bunnies. The boys stop off in New York to do the Today Show (that’s where Krugman comes in), drop in on Aldous’ carousing musician dad in a Las Vegas casino (Colm Meaney), tear up blah blah party blah blah dangerous drugs (“Stroke the furry wall”), and end up in LA an hour before showtime for the pièce de resistance. It involves Aaron’s wife Daphne (Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men fame), the grounded one, a doctor who passes up numerous opportunities to dump her fat slob husband because she loves him. Awww.

Among the cameos, walk-ons, and drive-bys: Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich as Jackie Q’s new boyfriend, singer Pink, broadcast journo Kurt Loder, Christina Aguilera as herself, Kristen Bell as Sarah Marshall, former child star Rick Schroder, veteran actor Dinah Stabb as Aldous’ mother, and Aldous’ recurring band Infant Sorrow. Their lyrics are worse, meaning they’re better, than anything Spinal Tap did. Actor Brand may have invented a franchise for himself as Aldous — he’s a snotty but disarming spew champ with witty dialogue. Funniest Apatow flick since Pineapple Express.

2010 marks the 100th birthday of the late great Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. In the years since his death in 1998, it has become fashionable in some critical circles to whittle down the filmmaker’s reputation. Kurosawa “wasn’t as Japanese” as Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi; he made Europeanized white elephant films à la Fellini; his taste in literature was too middlebrow, etc. A few of the complaints may be arguable, but Japan’s best-known director got that way because he understood one or two things about storytelling. At his best, Kurosawa’s stories are some of the most memorable in the history of world cinema, told in bold, expressive brushstrokes, with characters that everyone from Sergio Leone to Steven Spielberg could relate to.

The Pacific Film Archive’s “Akira Kurosawa Centennial” mini-retrospective, opening this Friday, June 4, with a twin bill of Rashomon and Drunken Angel, samples nine of Kuro-chan’s films, including two relatively rarely seen dramas from the director’s middle period. Both I Live in Fear (1955) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960) feature longtime collaborator Toshiro Mifune in contemporary roles that are light years away from the samurai swordfighters he played in Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.

While other Japanese artists were making kaiju eiga, giant monster movies, in response to the shattering national experience of atomic attack, Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear addresses the issue of nuclear jitters with an account of one family’s fissure. Mifune, in heavy, stagey makeup, plays Kiichi Nakajima, elderly owner of an iron foundry and patriarch of an extended family, all of whom depend on him for their livelihood. The iron-willed old man, however, is so fearful of being killed by an H-bomb that he is in the midst of liquidating his business and moving to Brazil. The family opposes this. They sue Nakajima-san, and it’s up to a local dentist, played by Kurosawa stock company actor Takashi Shimura, to sort it all out. The basic material is reminiscent of Ozu, but topical. I Live in Fear screens June 13.

The Bad Sleep Well begins with an unsettling image. At an elaborate Tokyo wedding banquet with a pack of reporters in attendance, the camera focuses on the foot of the limping bride — she wears a platform shoe to compensate for a disability. Turns out the bride, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), is the daughter of Mr. Iwabuchi (stern-faced Masayuki Mori), an executive at a scandal-plagued land development company. And the groom, Koichi Nishi (Mifune, almost unrecognizable in slicked-back hair and glasses), happens to be Iwabuchi’s right-hand man. Seems like a simple case of nepotism crossed with raging careerism, but there’s more to this scathing anti-corporate drama than meets the eye. Mild-mannered Nishi isn’t marrying the boss’ daughter as a career move — what’s really on his mind is revenge. It plays June 19. The series, curated by the PFA’s Susan Oxtoby, runs through June 30. Also part of the centennial festivities is the re-release of Ran, Kurosawa’s 1985 retelling of King Lear as a feudal epic, starring Tatsuya Nakadai. It opens Friday at Landmark’s Embarcadero in San Francisco.

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