Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Funny People

Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman
Running Time: 136 min.
Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

I was always fascinated to hear and watch stories about how people carry on with their lives after having a near-death experience. But I never really bought into the idea that you're necessarily "reborn" or become a "new person" as a result of it. Chances are that if your life is loaded with problems only you can fix, almost dying isn't going to wipe them all away. That's the central premise of Judd Apatow's third film, Funny People. That's right, only his THIRD film. I had to double-check that, but it's true. Doesn't it seem like he's made about 15,000 so far? As a writer and producer he probably has, but as strange as it seems, it really is only his third outing in the director's chair. And if recent box office estimates are to be trusted, it's officially his first commercial flop.

When his sophomore effort Knocked Up became a huge hit, I was puzzled what moviegoers found funny and endearing about a nasty, mean-spirited drama that unsuccessfully tried to pass itself off as sophisticated comedy. Now the shoe's on the other foot as I find myself defending the one film of his that has understandably been failing to striking a chord with mainstream audiences. To the relief of many, the days of Apatow indulging himself with nearly two and a half hour cuts have probably come to an end after this. But there's a lot of good news anyway.

Unlike Knocked Up (which this is about a thousand times better than by the way), what's supposed to be funny is funny and what's supposed to be dramatic is dramatic, with the two never mixing uncomfortably. It very much feels like a dramedy, if maybe an overly ambitious one. But at least there's no confusion as to what it's supposed to be. The film is a lot better than you've heard and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if in the coming years it starts to experience a re-evaluation from the same critics and audiences who dismissed it.

Funny People can be broken down into two sections: The BEFORE and the AFTER. When lonely, self-absorbed actor/comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia he falls into a deep depression questioning his life and career choices. Enter Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) a sub shop employee and aspiring stand-up comedian who has to unexpectedly follow George's depressing routine at a nightclub and responds by mocking him. Despite their shaky start, George sees something in the young comedian he likes and hires him as his writer and personal assistant, much to the chagrin of Ira's jealous roomates, aspiring stand-up Leo Keonig (Jonah Hill) and egotistical actor Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), whose recent taste of fame as the star of the new NBC series, Yo Teach! is going straight to his head. That's the BEFORE.

The AFTER comes when George discovers he's been miraculously cured of the disease, a piece of information the studio has curiously gone to great lengths to reveal, perhaps fearing even fewer people would turn out for a comedy they think features Adam Sandler slowly perishing from a leukemia. George uses this new lease on life to re-connect with old flame Laura (Leslie Mann), an ex-actress who will always be better known to him as "the one that got away." But winning her back from husband Clarke (Eric Bana) is a problem since George has come away from his life altering ordeal no less of a jerk than he was before, if not more of one. He still has a long way to go before he can be considered a fully functioning human being capable of a real relationship. Ira is the only person who has George's back, even if he doesn't seem to appreciate it.

Surprisingly, nothing in this film feels forced. Celebrity cameos (from the likes of James Taylor, Eminem, Tom from MySpace and a whole bunch of comedians) and pop culture references are blended in seamlessly. Even more impressively, stand-up comedy is extremely difficult to depict on film in an entertaining way and here we're not only given a (presumably) inside look into that world, but the stand-up material is hilarious. Of all the three Apatow written/directed films this one has the highest percentage of jokes that hit the mark and it's a screenplay filled with clever in-jokes that shouldn't be spoiled.

For a while things are going so perfectly that you don't ever want the movie to end. Of course, you could say that with a running time of almost 140 minutes, it almost never does. There's only one thing that doesn't completely work and while it doesn't completely fail either, it's problematic enough that it starts to become an issue in the third act, especially considering the amount of time allotted to it. Apatow makes a questionable judgement call in asking us to root for George and Laura's potentially rekindled relationship, despite being spawned from desperation and infidelity. But that's not much the problem as it's a reflection of George's immorality, of which only Ira seems able to see. The problem is, save for a couple of flashbacks, we're not given enough background on their relationship to really care about it all that much.

Apatow didn't necessarily craft a role for his wife that's underwritten since she gets plenty of screen time and is given a lot to do, but that's not to say it could have been written better. Sure, we don't want Laura leaving her husband and kids (played by Apatow and Mann's real life daughters) for the selfish George but we don't want her staying with her jerk husband either. This gives us no one to root for and and a host of unlikable people, chief among them Laura for her awful judgment. Luckily, she played by Mann who's able to conceal much of that and I was just so happy to finally see her in a well deserved major role that I hardly noticed the writing flaw. Bana, who was the subject of Knocked Up's most memorable joke, helps save the final act by showing a charisma and gift for comedy we never knew he had. Or at least we wouldn't know he had it from watching Munich, Hulk or Troy. It's a real shocker. Almost as shocking as the fact that Bana used to be a stand-up comedian.

I'm not sure that this is Sandler's best performance but I am positive that George Simmons is my favorite character that Sandler has ever played, mainly because it recalls so much of what I always imagined he's really like. For those like me who grew up watching him on SNL and listening to his early comedy albums it's thrill to see him sending up his own image like this and the incorporation of his early career footage into the film just adds to that authenticity and nostalgia.

It's difficult to discern the game Sandler's playing with us in taking this role, if it's a game at all. Is this some kind of admission of guilt or apology for making the choices he has in his career, despite the fame and success it's brought him? Or is he laughing at us for being stupid enough to enjoy them? Is he in on this joke? We'll never know, but the cruel irony is that after the commercial failure of this film Sandler will once again have to go back to making the same kinds of movies he appears to be mocking himself for in this picture. We criticize his "sell-out" choices but whenever he attempts to stretch with more meaningful work like this we hate him for it. It makes me wonder if George's speech about people expecting too much from him could have come from Sandler himself. Scarier still, he may be right.

As interesting as his performance is, it isn't the best in the film. Rogen's is. Even though many feel as if he's been overexposed of late, he just seems to get better and better with each role he takes. Despite the comedic elements surrounding him, he gives Ira a full-fledged dramatic arc, making his friendship with George the focal point from which everything else in the story bounces off of. Because Rogen's work is subtly present and understated (words I never thought I'd ever use to describe a performance of his), it isn't instantly obvious how well he serves the material. Had another actor been cast in the part this wouldn't have been the same experience at all. And bonus points to Apatow for cleverly incorporating Rogen's recent weight loss into the character's backstory.

As autobiographical a film as this is for Sandler, it feels like it could be even more autobiographical for Apatow, kind of like he was shooting for his own Almost Famous. We knew this guy was a major writing talent when his his TV series Freaks and Geeks was cancelled almost a decade ago, but I don't think anyone (including him) had a clue he would go on to enjoy the kind of success he's had. This movie seems like his way of reconciling that and maybe just stopping for a breather to take it all in.This looks and feels like his first real adult movie and more like the kind of film that would be directed by James L. Brooks and released into theaters during awards season (he even employs Schindler's List and Munich cinematographer Janusz Kaminski ). He really came to play this time. And as oppressive as it's running time might seem to be on paper it didn't FEEL long to me, at least compared to other movies these past few years that have abused their running times.

This picture was on my list of most anticipated films of 2009 not because I thought it would be some kind of masterpiece (which it isn't) but because I know no matter what Apatow does right or wrong it's almost always guaranteed to be more interesting than a lot of what else is out there. Go figure I would enjoy the ugly step-child in his filmography this much. At best, Funny People will have a far longer shelf life than most expect, or at worst, be remembered as a fascinating curiosity in the career of one of comedy's most influential voices.

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