Monday, August 3, 2009

Funny People (2009, Judd Apatow)

Judd Apatow has worked in comedy since he was a teenager, and his knowledge of the business comes through in the details of his latest film, Funny People. The movie is full of small touches that are completely convincing, and were no doubt inspired by the experiences of Apatow and his cast of comic ringers. For example, look at the scene in which Seth Rogen, playing a struggling stand-up who gets hired as a writer by superstar Adam Sandler, is pitching his new jokes to the boss- instead of laughing at the material, Sandler simply nods and says, “yeah, that’s funny,” thinking less about his personal thoughts on the joke than about how he can get a laugh out of it. Funny People is best in moments like these, and the movie is full of them- like the beatific smugness of a young comic who has landed the lead in a crap sitcom, or an up-and-comer who posts videos of himself frolicking with cute kittens to generate traffic for his blog.

Unfortunately, the movie as a whole doesn’t live up to these details. Funny People has enough storylines and ideas for three or four movies, but Apatow can’t find a way to bring them together into one. Apatow’s directing style has always been loose, but when you’re trying to cover as much ground as he does here, some discipline is required, but Apatow just can’t bring himself to impose a structure on his material. Instead, he lets his cast riff, sometimes to hilarious ends, but more often leading to scenes that flail around on the screen in search of a purpose or a payoff. This is especially damaging to the film’s less overtly funny scenes, in which the lack of discipline dulls the impact they might otherwise have had. The result is a 2 ½ hour movie that seems to drag on endlessly, especially in its second half.

Not helping matters is Sandler’s presence in one of the film’s two central roles (Rogen plays the other). Sandler equips himself fairly well in the first hour of so of the movie, in which he plays George Simmons, an emotionally stunted big-screen superstar who is singularly unequipped to deal with the news that he’s contracted a terminal disease. In interviews, Apatow has said that he wanted to make a movie about someone who learns all the wrong lessons from his brush with death, and in the first half of the movie Sandler holds up his end of the bargain, playing the sort of blinkered asshole whose first impulse when faced with his own mortality is to do stand-up comedy routines about how much his fans will miss him when he’s gone. His private life consists primarily of torturing his new assistant/joke writer/flunky Ira (Rogen), who is the closest thing to a friend that he has.

These early scenes work fairly well since Sandler can do the selfish prick thing fairly well, since his lack of expressiveness dovetails perfectly with a comedian’s need to distance himself from sincere emotion. However, he’s not up to the later scenes in the film, in which he pays a visit to Laura, “the one that got away,” played by Leslie Mann. In these scenes, George and Laura are revealed to still harbor feelings for each other, but I wasn’t buying it. For one thing, I didn’t believe that Laura would be willing to leave a comfortable life (albeit with a loutish and allegedly unfaithful husband played by Eric Bana) for a guy who by all accounts treated her pretty shabbily. But just as unfathomable is the idea that George would consider- even briefly- the possibility of settling down. Sandler is just too much of an emotional blank to hint at the reserves of emotion behind a guy who spends his time telling dick jokes and sleeping with fans who want him to do silly voices in mid-hump. It’s not as big of a stretch as, say, his performance as the world-class chef and all-around snuggly-bear who inflames Paz Vega’s passions in Spanglish, but still- the colors Sandler needs for his scenes with Laura just aren’t to be found in his box of acting Crayolas.

But even without Sandler, the Laura scenes feel fairly problematic. Compared to the scenes of George’s lonely life and the rivalry between Ira and his friends, life with Laura is depicted to be an almost over-the-top take on domestic bliss. This would be fine, except for the fact that Laura is played by Apatow’s real-life wife Leslie Mann and her children are played by their real-life daughters Maude and Iris, who get ample opportunity to tell jokes and act cute for the camera. I don’t begrudge Apatow his happy family life, but in depicting the transcendent awesomeness of his wife and kids it does feel like he’s showing off. I mean, the “peanut butter game?” Really? Really?

Taken as a whole, Funny People is just too messy and problematic to be considered successful. However, there are enough little bits of goodness in it that it can’t be ignored. Chief among these is Rogen, who once again reveals unexpected chops as an actor. Playing a character far removed from his slow-burn psycho in Observe and Report, Rogen makes Ira an essentially good guy who is trying to make it in Hollywood but doesn’t quite have the stomach for it. At one point, Ira has to screw over his friend to further his career, but while it’s the kind of fairly small thing that surely happens all the time in the business, it’s apparent that Ira is conflicted about it, and Rogen suggests this without going over the top. Apatow clearly has affection for Ira, but he also knows that the comedy scene is full of guys like him, who haunt open-mic nights and grasp for any chance they can find to make a name for themselves. We can’t all be George Simmons, Apatow seems to be saying, but that’s probably a good thing. Of course, that’s not much comfort to Ira.

Rating: 5 out of 10.