Sunday, August 2, 2009

Some Funny People

Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls.

There! That might give you some idea of the tedium of the countless references to balls throughout Funny People, “the third film of Judd Apatow.” Are testicles that funny?

That’s the first thing you have to get through in order to reach the core of this story. Then you have to hang in there through the bland opening scenes that introduce three aspiring comedians/actors who live together in an apartment in L.A. – Ira (Seth Rogen), Leo (Jonah Hill), and Mark (Jason Schwartzman). These scenes seem to exist solely to showcase Apatow’s typical crude humor regarding balls, penis size, banging chicks, and anal sex. Pretty much all of this humor, which seems tiredly and routinely delivered, falls flat. Things don’t start working here until the film develops its central, serious story: George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a famous comedian and actor at the height of his popularity, learns that he is dying of leukemia. This launches him into a soul-searching re-assessment of his life and a drive to use his time well by returning to stand-up comedy, which involves hiring Ira as a joke writer and general assistant. What follows is a grave, touching, witty central story that explores themes of death and the preciousness of life; the allure of fame; mentorship; friendship; and redemption for past wrongs.

As Ira, Seth Rogen sensitively develops a believable character, an innocent individual in search of identity as he pursues his passion for comedy. It is within the parameters of George and Ira’s relationship and the world through which they move that the film achieves a sense of humor and a heart. Regarding Adam Sandler as George Simmons, I pretended I didn’t know anything about Sandler or his career, which is mirrored by Simmons’s career. What I saw, then, was an interesting story about the gains and losses of fame and the pursuit of creativity, a storyline that always fascinates me. The film effectively portrays how hard it must be to get up on stage in front of a demanding audience. Your goal is to elicit laughter, but you need the strength to endure the silence if the jokes fizzle. As for this Adam Sandler: he’s not a great actor, but he does a commendable job in this middle portion of film. We feel his cynicism about life and his doubts about past decisions.

Then Apatow’s epic comedy turns from a serious analysis of fame and fortune into a more standard comic romp about the importance of family as George, having learned that he may not die, tries to undo the worst mistake of his life by winning back Laura (Leslie Mann), his former lover who is a married woman with two daughters. This turns into a lengthy contest over Laura between George and Clarke, Laura’s philandering Aussie husband, (Eric Bana), and it feels like we’re watching an entirely different film. When Clarke returns home unexpectedly from a business trip, I cringed, hoping he wouldn’t invite George and Ira to stay the night – thus prolonging this digression – but he does, and they stay, and it goes on.

This film-within-the-film includes some nice jokes, many of them involving the kids: Mable and Ingrid , played by Apatow’s daughters, Maude and Iris. There’s a fun reference to The Deer Hunter and good-natured humor about kids and parenting. This portion also contains the source of the best laughs in the whole film: watching dogs licking peanut butter off the kids’ faces. Eric Bana is also rather entertaining playing a parody of the cocky Aussie who loves violent Aussie football but also his kids. But this long final chapter gets somewhat slapstick and obvious in its message, and it detracts from the poignancy and thematic development of the film’s graver central story.

I’m not a big Adam Sandler fan, and I’m not a big Judd Apatow fan, but I enjoyed watching most of this movie. I wish the film had kept its focus on George Simmons’s self-examination of his life and career, and his mentor relationship with Ira, but there was enough to take me through the long final chapter, and I left feeling fairly well entertained.


Craig said...

Nice review, with bonus points for having the endurance to sit through this one. (I'll wait for the DVD.) For the life of me, I cannot understand why Apatow still refuses to write believable female characters, or show an interest in their point-of-view. It's not like he can't: Lindsay Weir, the heroine of "Freaks and Geeks," is one of the most three-dimensional women to appear on TV. I realize these arrested adolescent slacker-dudes are the foundation of his comedy empire, and I've gotten a kick out of them; but he's ignoring a pretty large demographic out there as a result, and I think it's starting to come back to bite him. I've been an Apatow apologist for the last few years, but my patience is wearing thin.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment. I totally see what you're saying about "believable female characters." And it does come back to bite Apatow here, because the opening scenes focused on the "arrested adolescent slacker-dudes" fall flat. Apatow offers a token interesting female character who holds her own with the slacker-dudes, but she doesn't get much screen time.

PIPER said...

I'm leery of Apatow's films. 40 Year Old Virgin was good, but long. Didn't care much for Knocked Up. And when I saw this, I really had hope that Apatow would get over his shortcomings. His shortcomings being disjointed storytelling that lasts way too long. However, I've read some reviews and along with yours, it's the same old same old.

The bigger story here is how Apatow is killing good comedy. I'm all for improv and work with it constantly, but having a few guys sit in a room for no other reason than to out-funny eachother is not good storytelling. Thinking back to great comedies like Young Frankenstein or Animal House, they have great comedic moments that help advance the story. And if they don't they're brief in their time. I'm thinking specifically of Belushi in the lunch line of Animal House. A great scene that didn't necessarily tell us much, but it was brief.

I remember in 40 year old virgin when Rogan and Rudd are sitting playing a video game and saying how gay each one was. I didn't think it was all that funny of a scene, and it certainly didn't advance the story any. But damn if everyone didn't point that scene out as one of their favorites.

Apatow killing comedy is certainly a strong statement and I wouldn't necessarily say he's doing that, but it's evolving and I don't think in the right direction.

Richard Bellamy said...

I agree with you here. My opening comments in my post are basically saying that there's so much crude excess you have to get through before you get to any story. I liked Virgin - but I've totally eliminated Knocked Up from my mind because it was way heavy on what Craig would call "arrested adolescent slacker-dudes humor."

As for Funny People I went merely because it seemed to be the big release of the weekend and I wanted to write about something.

But I'm with you on comedy - I like humor and funny bits that move the story along. Animal House is a good example - and recently, I think, Hot Fuzz I'm with you - I like funny WITH a plot.

In this movie, there kind of was a plot in the more serious middle, but it got buried.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

The Film Doctor said...

Good insights, Hokahey.

I never got the impression that Funny People was meant to be a comedy. The dying of leukemia plotline rubs up against the lewd jokes in a way that left me wondering how to respond for much of the movie. Torn between Sandler's usual adolescent audience and a more adult sophisticated one, the film does not really address either in a satisfying way. The whole Laura subplot perhaps shows how George is trying to find a normal life after his big wake up call, but I agree that it doesn't fit in very well in the latter half of the film.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment, FilmDr. Yes, it's a mish-mash of a story. And the central conflict of Simmons dying is a serious one; that's the story I liked. But, as you say, not enough attention is paid to that one. What was Apatow thinking? Doesn't he revise his screenplays? Or, as it seems, he was just trying to cram everything on his mind at the time into one movie.