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The Star Market: Can Russell Brand Conquer America?

When Russell Brand hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time, in February, he kicked off his monologue by saying, “This is a difficult thing for me to point out, but you should know — I’m much more famous in England than I am here. Okay?” It was a setup for a pretty good joke about how tight his pants were, but the underlying implication is clear: The 35-year-old Brand, already an institution in his native country, has his sights set on superstardom across the pond as well. He’s made remarkably quick inroads toward megafame since his first splash in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall; his biggest role to date, as Dudley Moore’s fill-in in the Arthur remake, opens next Friday, and he voices the lead rabbit in the animated Easter Bunny movie Hop, which opens today. Can the British icon become a true American movie star? To find out, we spoke to industry insiders to answer the weekly Star Market question: If Russell Brand were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: Brand’s had a long and varied career in England — including multiple stand-up specials, television- and radio-hosting gigs, and the publication of a pair of memoirs — that has gone almost utterly unnoticed by American audiences. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: It means they’ve missed his many controversies as well, like the time he showed up for work at MTV dressed up as Osama Bin Laden the day after 9/11, or the time he got fired from the BBC for harassing an elderly Fawlty Towers actor (Brand left him multiple voice mails, on air, claiming to have slept with the guy’s granddaughter). In the U.S., his career effectively started with his scene-stealing role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall ($105 million worldwide); that was followed up with a reprisal of that film's Aldous Snow character in another solid box-office performer, Get Him to the Greek ($91 million). He had a small role as the jester Trinculo in Julie Taymor’s critically lambasted art-house reimagining of The Tempest, which pulled in a fraction of the audience that saw him host MTV’s Movie Awards in 2008 and 2009. He goes back-to-back in the multiplex in the next two weeks: Today, as the voice of the hip Easter Bunny in Hop; next week, as Arthur.

Peers: Zach Galifianakis (41), Bradley Cooper (36), Jonah Hill (27), Jason Segel (31), and Ed Helms (37). “All those guys started out as supporting comedy players," says one top talent agent, "and all of them now can carry a movie — or at least are thought to be able to by studios.”

Market Value: As the agent above points out, Hollywood could be ready to bet big on Brand. And that makes sense: While his portfolio is limited, it’s got two hits (Marshall and Greek). In the first, he was the discovery that everyone left the film talking about, and he was the reason audiences largely went to see the second one. (The Apatow crew saw this coming: As the story goes, the original character in Marshall was basically rewritten as Russell Brand after his powerhouse audition, which on its own has racked up almost a million YouTube views.) The Tempest was a failure, but it was a small film not sold on his name, and Shakespeare movies are never expected to score; plus, all blame fell on Taymor, as is the trend these days. His profile has also been raised thanks to his tabloid-friendly marriage to pop star Katy Perry. While that kind of association could, theoretically, sully up his image if things turn sour in the public eye, right now it seems to be boosting his glamour.

What Hollywood Thinks: Says another agent, “I think if you look at where he was two years ago, and where he is now, he’s doing fantastically: Then, he was a comedian just out of rehab in the U.K.; now he’s at the head of a studio film.” The agent adds, “The question is, ‘Can he carry a movie?’ The test will be how [Arthur] does. It really is on his shoulders. If he does carry it off, he’ll be offered the leads of a lot more studio movies. I haven’t seen him in anything else, but I’ve heard he’s really good in Arthur.” A publicist signed off wholeheartedly: “I'm obsessed with him both as a person and onscreen, and think he's absurd and brilliant. So on that level, their strategy is quite successful.”

The Analysis: Brand has successfully imported his persona — the charming irresponsible wildman — Stateside, nailing it in both Marshall and Greek. Arthur is, calculatedly, in no way a departure. And that’s the crux: If audiences flock to Arthur, Brand has no immediate reason to do anything else. If it flops, then the kneejerk reaction will be to get him to expand his range. The agent suggests doing so already: “Sarah Marshall was a hit; Greek was a hit. But if I were advising him, I’d want to make sure he’s not doing the same role over and over. It’s about extending your brand, if you will.”

In Vulture’s opinion, switching up Brand’s game now seems a bit premature. There is a long, proud tradition of Hollywood stars becoming bankable via repetition. Folks like Adam Sandler, Matthew McConaughey, and Will Ferrell do at certain points mix up their roster, but they always make sure to go back to the bread and butter. Counting Arthur, Brand’s only three big movies in and has progressed nicely from supporting to co-starring to full-on carrying a project. And if Arthur underperforms, there’s no rush to get Brand Oscar-bait roles. Brand is a unique personality: He's a speedy improvisational conversationalist who always seems simultaneously unhinged and brilliant. He's reminiscent of a young Robin Williams, and one cringes at the idea of someone Patch Adams–ing him.

The Bottom Line: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And even if it breaks a little, try it again before trying to reinvent him. Brand exudes charm; people love him. Let him do him.

Buy/Sell/Hold: Buy.

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images