Far from Crazy

Russell Brand cleans up his act

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Look closely and you can make out a theme running through Russell Brand's major movie roles to date: lascivious rock star, drug-addicted rock star, drunk, rich drunk and an Easter Bunny who would rather be a rock star.

But if Brand's acting career lacks range, he hasn't suffered for it. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, his first U.S. movie (the "lascivious rock star" one), hit screens in 2008. Three years and a slew of warm reviews later, the working-class Brit and former junkie produced and stars in an update of one of the most successful romantic comedies of all time, 1981's Arthur, alongside Dame Helen Mirren.

While many men who are considered hilarious in England — Billy Connolly, Rowan Atkinson, Thomas Paine — have struggled to find a comedic niche in the U.S., Brand, 35, has made himself right at home. "The interest in me and acceptance of my novelty," he says of his Hollywood reception, "has been like when Superman leaves his planet and suddenly things that are just normal for him become these superpowers here on earth. Or like Columbus returning from the colonies with tobacco."

On top of holding his own with comedy heavyweights in such movies as Get Him to the Greek, Bedtime Stories and Despicable Me, he's shot a stand-up special for Comedy Central and written two memoirs, one of which made the New York Times best-seller list. Also, he managed to snag a gainfully employed American wife. Her name is Katy Perry. She sings.

It doesn't hurt that Brand is blessed with the accent of an orphan, the mind of a teenage boy and the vocabulary of an Oxford don. Or that he has a gift for making up outlandish dialogue on the spot, which is how comedy's current producer-deity, Judd Apatow (the force behind Greek and Sarah Marshall), likes to roll.

Brand has had plenty of outrageous material to work with. His "novelty" includes what he calls his "youthful folly, jubilance and hijinks" — that is, his addictions. On Sept. 12, 2001, he turned up for his job as a VJ on British MTV dressed as Osama bin Laden. He was fired. In 2002 he read pornography aloud on a radio show. He was fired. Brand has been fired a lot, usually on account of his bottomless thirst for sex, alcohol and illicit substances. As he later put it, "the thing about heroin — it's very more-ish."

Even a sober Brand — he's been clean since 2003 — is a mischievous one. As host of the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards, he made lewd jokes about the Jonas Brothers and called President George W. Bush a "retarded cowboy" who in England "wouldn't be trusted with a pair of scissors." This time he was asked to host again.

It's easy to see how this wicked pixie could step into the role of Arthur, the wanton but winningly naive billionaire who's forced to choose between love and wealth: Brand has the impulsive energy, the pathos and the skirt- and booze-chasing résumé. Yet much of the comedy in Arthur doesn't land. The problem isn't just that Brand is less witty when he's less dirty. It's that the remake's PG-13 script lacks the sharp take on human frailty that Brand's humor has. (The original film had it too.)

Having strip-mined his own addictions and recovery in his stand-up for years, Brand now expresses less desire to exploit that kind of material. "We're entering an age where we have this bewildering lust for downfall," he says. "We shouldn't be at the sidelines applauding people's self-destruction."

Does that mean Brand's troublemaker days are done? Not exactly. He's in talks to play yet another rocker, this time in a hair-band movie musical. And then there's stand-up: "For me, it's the perfect medium," he says. "It's uncensored and immediate." Plus, he can hear the laughter, which is a perfectly legal high. And very more-ish.

This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2011 issue of TIME.