Tuesday, June 15, 2010
There was a time when spinning off a character to his/her own unique entertainment property was considered a sign of desperation, or the worst kind of creative malaise. Can't quite let go of Friends? Move Joey to Los Angeles and give him his own show. Needless to say, it didn't work out in that case.
But sticking with television, there are also the examples where that kind of decision is genius, and creates television that rivaled the original program in terms of popularity and/or critical acclaim. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I'd bet Fraser won more Emmys than Cheers.
Movies are similarly strewn with successes and failures. I probably don't need to list them here. You know your Beauty Shops from your Evan Almightys. (In case it's not obvious, Beauty Shop is good -- really! -- and Evan Almighty is bad.)
Today I'd like to talk about two other recent examples of the trend -- one of which is already available for your viewing pleasure, one of which has just been announced. Both are based on two of the funniest movies of 2008.
Needless to say from the poster art above, the first is Get Him to the Greek, which I saw on Saturday night. Get Him to the Greek follows the character of Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand, from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, one of the funniest and best written comedies in years. Snow's the lanky and stylish British rocker who's sleeping with Sarah Marshall (Kristin Bell), recently broken up from our hero, Peter (Jason Segel). In a lesser film, Aldous would have been a nasty prat who didn't have an ounce of humanity. In this film, he's charming, funny, and basically a good guy, except that he likes to sleep with everything that moves and is a little full of himself. He was the film's breakout character, which is saying a lot, considering how good all four of the main characters are.
Why spinning off his character worked: In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, we only got to see Aldous Snow in the context of a brief Hawaiian resort vacation -- in other words, about the least likely place for an urban partier like him to be. (Okay, reformed partier -- he's sober.) Get Him to the Greek promised not only to show us the more usual environment for Aldous Snow, but also what he's like when he's off the wagon. That gave the spinoff a purely plot-driven reason for existing. But more importantly, Brand's portrayal of the character -- the rocker as a funny and complicated human being, not as merely a symbol of excess and entitlement -- gave the spinoff its potential emotional core. Because we like Aldous Snow, we want to see what makes him human outside of just being a good sport when his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend crashes his vacation. We want to see what he's like with his on-again off-again soulmate (played terrifically in Greek by Rose Byrne as a similarly soulful-vapid pop star) and his seven-year-old son.
The second spinoff I'd like to discuss is a breakout character of similar magnitude to Aldous Snow, and possibly more hilarious. But I don't really expect this one to work.
If you watched the MTV Movie Awards (I didn't), you were treated to the reappearance of Les Grossman, Tom Cruise's despicable studio exec from Tropic Thunder. The fact that Cruise was even in the movie was supposed to be a surprise, especially since he's nearly unrecognizable under all that makeup and wearing that bald cap. But now that it's been almost two years since the movie was released, I'll have to assume it doesn't qualify as a spoiler to talk about him here.
Simply put, Cruise was uproarious in Tropic Thunder. His Les Grossman was a profane, revolting, and possibly only slightly exaggerated example of the type of bottom-line studio exec you could imagine having a closet (or not so closet) affection for the bling-blingy stylings of hip hop. His scenes dancing to Ludacris (he danced to the same song on MTV, with an assist from J-Lo) were perhaps the funniest of the whole movie. Second may have been him screaming spittle and threatening to not only fire, but basically kill, anyone who gets in his way. A couple days after the MTV Movie Awards, Ben Stiller announced that Grossman would be getting his own movie.
Why spinning off his character probably won't work: It's hard to watch an entire movie where you're supposed to hate the main character, even if you love to hate him. Aldous Snow presented a problem for the protagonist in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but he was ultimately very likable on his own terms, complicated enough to be human. Grossman, on the other hand, is basically a caricature -- in fact, you could say that his defining characteristic is his inability to have anything resembling a human emotion. Not only that, but unlike with Snow, we've seen him in his primary arena of operation. What surprises could a Les Grossman feature yield, that we haven't already seen in Tropic Thunder? It could be argued that we've already seen exactly as much of Les Grossman as we were ever meant to see.
What could work: Spin off Robert Downey Jr.'s character, Kirk Lazarus, and have Grossman appear as a supporting character in the Lazarus film. That's Grossman's perfect role, as comic relief for a main character who can carry a film.
Not that any of the characters in Tropic Thunder were particularly three-dimensional. That's what separates it from a character-driven comedy like Forgetting Sarah Marshall -- it's more scenario-driven, an absurdist satire. It's really a matter of preference which one you like better, but the character-driven comedy may be a better launching point for a spinoff than the satire.
Or not. I guess we'll find out next year, or whenever Les Grossman: The Movie hits theaters.