Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Belated Defense of Funny People

I saw Judd Apatow's Funny People for the first time last May at a test screening a few months before its release. Even in an incomplete form (although aside from a few excised lines, I'd be hard pressed to identify any real changes between the version I saw and the final product) I knew right away that the film was something special and an evolutionary leap forward from a filmmaker who I'd felt had been puttering around for the last couple years at a safe reserve. Apatow is of course the mega writer-producer witch a credit on seemingly every major American comedy of the last six years who was coming off the critical and financial success of his last directorial effort, 2007's Knocked Up, a film that has always made me ideologically queasy in spite of the fact that it's undeniably funny.

But Funny People was something different. It represented a bracingly mature departure from the filmmaker, albeit one that still found room to incorporate roughly a hundred to a hundred and fifty dick and balls jokes into the proceedings. Yes, the film was another overlong, shaggy-dog tale of perpetually immature men being forced to grow up while slumming through Southern California. Yet the film stubbornly refused to ignore the consequences of this behavior, following callow self-destructive acts to their natural conclusion no matter how uncomfortable or absent of catharsis they might be. More than anything, the film reminded me of James L. Brooks' seminal, mid 80's workplace comedy Broadcast News which deftly balanced mortifying, awkward social comedy with all too prescient assaults on the changing face of the media and an understated love triangle. If Funny People doesn't quite reach those heights it's at least aimed in that direction.

Yet, for as much as I loved the film, my hands were tied to talk about it. In addition to the standard non disclosure form I had signed before seeing the film, I was also assaulted by an overzealous goon from the research firm that was conducting the test screening who not only recognized my face but indicated that he'd been monitoring me online through various social networking sites that I belong to (you always dream that you'll be cyber-stalked by some overly-invested cute girl but in actuality it's almost always the dude who's currently dating your ex or some creepy, middle-aged, corporate stooge). After being told, in so many words, that I was being watched and would be punished if I talked about the film, I kept my mouth shut. And once the film was released my mouth remained shut, because clearly I was in no mood to do anyone any favors.

Sadly, Funny People probably could have used my voice (it certainly wouldn't have hurt it). The film opened to less than $23 million despite the presence of Adam Sandler and only went on to gross roughly twice that in this country. The standard knock against the film was that, for as funny as the first hour and a half were, the left turn the film takes when Sandler and Seth Rogen's characters depart for a weekend in Marin County to visit Sandler's ex (played by actress Leslie Mann, who also happens to be Apatow's real life wife) took the film in a direction that fans of the genre were unprepared and unwilling to go to. Essentially the film dials down the frat boy backslapping and inside baseball for more low key, situational humor. It's as though the film starts as Superbad and grows into Sideways, laying bare the human toll of Sandler's self-absorbed actions and skewing the audience's loyalties into a series of ever changing permutations. It's an incredibly bold departure by Apatow at a time where audiences have shown they want nothing more from comedies than to serve as extra bawdy, ninety-minute-long episodes of "Two and Half Men."

So is it any wonder the film tanked with the very same crowd that turned Knocked Up into a sensation? Knocked Up you'll remember adhered to the tried and true, young man comes of age formula, with all the hard earned life lessons hastily cut together into a montage to leave more room for Vegas drug freak outs, pop culture digressions and gratuitous crowning shots. No less an authority than ESPN's The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons (who's far from a refined film-goer but is a fair arbiter of taste for men of a certain age and interest), spent the whole summer working disparaging references to the film into podcasts and columns: oh but if only the film could have hewed more closely to the profanity strewn world of night clubs and bullshit sessions without changing midstream into a touchy-feely, midlife ennui, mope-fest of marital disappointment and hurt feelings.

Watching the film again on DVD I was struck by just how funny the first two thirds of the film still are. So much so it's almost understandable how people could find the transition to more sedate material so jarring. Apatow and his cast are too effective at crafting an unforced comedy of hazing and aggressive (passive and otherwise) free form riffing all while carefully observing insular, fickle human behavior (mostly of the young male variety). Apatow may not be a filmmaker with enormous range but he clearly knows his sweet spot. Having spent years as both a comedy writer and an aspiring stand up, Apatow gifts the film an air of casual authenticity, in particular the way Rogen's character, Ira, limps along the poverty line, living in the shadow of his vapid but more successful housemates.

Like Cameron Crow's Almost Famous, Funny People is a comedy about those who exist alongside the rich and famous, exploiting the wealth and access of their glamorous buddies so long as they never overstep their role and judge the demonstrably flawed celebrity they're joined at the hip with. Ira idolizes Sandler's George Simmons, having grown up watching such terrible-looking (yet oddly plausible) films as "Merman" and "Redo." In Ira, George has a walking cheering section who will validate his puerile behavior, weather his emasculating insults, chuckle at his lame jokes and more than anything desperately aspire to be like George. It's only when Ira tries to relate to George as a contemporary and friend, refusing to look the other way at the older man's selfish tendencies, does George bristle.

George (who we are quite consciously meant to interpret as a slightly skewered version of Sandler's persona via the use of archival footage of a younger Adam doing stand-up and goofing around in his dorm room throughout the film) is a manipulative demigod of self loathing not above using his fame to bed women half his age (while always acknowledging that they'll come away disappointed) or turning a Thanksgiving toast into an opportunity to work out new material on a group of fawning twenty-somethings.

The performance reminds me of Mickey Rourke's much lauded and similarly revealing work in last year's The Wrestler. Awards not withstanding though (and unfortunately, Mr. Sandler will be receiving none) I actually think this is the greater achievement. Sandler's work as George is lacerating in its self-assessment, painting the picture of a selfish, short-tempered, lonely man who is conscious of his wealth and fame (perhaps the most off-putting thing about the character is how quickly he resorts to talking about his money on stage as a crutch; at a time when seemingly half the country is unemployed, George bemoans how his possessions mostly make him miserable) and as a comedian knows exactly what to say to cause the most emotional harm to those around him. A scene late in the film where Ira, stuck in a moving vehicle, is personally and professional eviscerated by George in as punishing a verbal assault as I can remember in a recent film not written by Labute or Mamet. This is a deeply unsympathetic performance by Sandler. It exposes Sandler's fans to oceans of insecurity and rage in a performer known predominantly for making shitty family comedies while building on and expanding upon the promise shown in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love and James L. Brooks' Spanglish.

There's a Norma Desmond quality to Sandler's performance in the film. We see him isolated and friendless, puttering around his tomb-like mansion, reliving his glory days by watching his young comedians' special and crummy cgi-heavy movies on a wall of flat screen TV's. George relies upon his domestic staff for day-to-day human contact (Ira ultimately falls into this category, tasked with such menial jobs as calling the cable company because George can't find the Cavaliers game on). When he does venture outside the house he's surrounded by burnt-out cronies to lavish attention on him (Paul Reiser and Norm McDonald cut almost as pathetic a figure as Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner). Funny People doesn't quite paint a disparaging picture of fame but it would seem to argue that there's a an emotional toll to being a construct existing for the amusement of others. Or put another way, it's hard to imagine anyone coming away from the film with a new-found desire to become a stand-up comedian.

If I've neglected to address the actual plot of Funny People it's because, like the film itself, I recognize the importance of laying groundwork. As the trailer regrettably spoiled, George is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that forces him to re-evaluate his life, only to be miraculously cured. The catch is, as Ira points out, George learns nothing from this experience despite claims to the contrary. George uses his sickness as simply the latest excuse to justify his cowardly grasps at self fulfillment, consequences be damned. Weaseling his way back into the life of Laura,Mann's scorned ex-girlfriend, George finds her now married to a philandering businessman (Eric Bana, incredible in a very difficult role) with two young children. Sensing a fissure in their domestic bliss that he can exploit and bust apart, George seduces the unappreciated Laura, inserting himself into the absent husband and father role while a horrified Ira is forced to look on and deal with the emotional fall-out as it splashes back on Laura's children (played, by Apatow and Mann's actual daughters, Maude & Iris Apatow).

And it's here that Funny People loses some people. For ninety minutes, like Ira, we've grown comfortable with George's actions; his needy vying for attention and wild mood swings are placed within a consequence-free context of what is ostensibly a buddy comedy. We like George because Ira likes George and because Sandler possesses an easy charm; he's like the older brother who calls you an idiot, gives you a noogie then throws you the keys to a new sports car. Yet placed within a family dynamic of dinner time and music recitals George's behavior clangs loudly. In one of the film's best scenes, we watch George as he compulsively checks his text messages while the proud Laura weeps at her daughter's performance of "Memories" from Cats, only for him to try and defuse the situation by claiming his stoner buddy would have found the whole thing hilarious.

Because we've been conditioned to believe Sandler is our hero and because Bana has been cast in the role of typically boorish jock--that Bana uses his actual Australian accent for some reason only further paints him as a jerk--standing in the way of George attaining what he believes is true love, there's an uncomfortable disconnect between what we want to happen and what we deep down recognize should not. Sandler lacks the patience and empathy to truly love anyone but himself; he goes through the motions of supporting Laura and pledges to be a father to her children yet its obvious that he'll only betray and disappoint them given enough time. The tension of the last act now arrives from whether Ira will be able to prevent Laura from dissolving her marriage from a flawed but decent man to be with the raging asshole we like to call our protagonist.

That, my friends, is one brave goddamn choice and Apatow had to have recognized that audiences would have difficulty embracing such an unconventional approach. Stand-up as an art form is built upon instant gratification and immediate approval (if you do well, you get laughs) yet Funny People isn't a film about a comedy, it's a film about comedians. That the film is initially so successful at generating laughs early on is a plus, but it's almost beside the point. There are no lessons learned or happy endings here, just a bunch of adults who make a mess of their lives then have to go about the process of putting them back together.

If there's a consistent flaw to the film, it's Apatow's tendency to pander to the audience, over-explaining that which should be plainly obvious. Apatow writes in a female love interest for Ira ("Parks & Recreation's" Aubrey Plaza, hiding behind Tina Fey glasses) who seems to exist for no reason other than to mirror his own starfucking tendencies. Similarly, Laura tells us on two separate occasions how much Bana's Clarke is like George. Apatow is also still something of a clumsy filmmaker, too reliant on montage and allowing his characters to riff at length about their penises and whatever pop culture phenomenon of the moment catches their fancy.

Still, this is uncommonly ambitious filmmaking for a mainstream, summer comedy staring one of the world's biggest stars in a role well outside his comfort zone. Shortly after the film's release I told a friend that I was worried the film was destined to be Apatow's Jackie Brown. To wit, Tarantino's Pulp Fiction follow up was not only perceived to be a failure in the eyes of the public but was also, like Funny People, a mature new direction from a director who could do no wrong provided he did the same thing over and over again. Tarantino has spent the past decade steering his career away from the kind of heartfelt, unadorned stories found at the center of Jackie Brown and I fear that Apatow's first taste of directorial failure will also send him scurrying to safer territory. I hope I'm wrong and that Apatow's internal compass will continue to point him towards more personal, adult material. In the meantime I can only do my small part, however late as it may be. Funny People is a special film, one filled with human weakness and regret and a willingness to depict its characters as emotionally vulnerable and susceptible to temptation. These are not attributes one usually associated with "laugh riots" and that's sort of the point. Funny People deserved better and I can only hope, like Jackie Brown, it becomes re-appreciated by audiences down the road. In the meantime, at least I'm on the record about it. Funny People is one of the best films of the year.


DK said...

I agree that this is a hugely underrated movie, and along with Observe and Report, will become a cult movie in a few years. Once people forget about Apatow and view this movie without expectations will its draw become apparent. Although I think the second half could have been better the movie works pretty well with its combo of joy and melancholy.

Ed Howard said...

Great piece!

I could see what Apatow was going for this film, but still felt the execution was lacking for long stretches. The general arc you talk about here — from a comedy of immaturity; to a would-be love story where George attempts to get back his lost love; to the pull-the-rug-out revelation that George's illness actually taught him nothing, that he was still immature and badly suited for real relationships — really is bold and interesting, especially from a filmmaker who has in the past unquestioningly celebrated male immaturity and crudeness. The stretch, late in the film, when it becomes painfully obvious just how untenable and shallow George's supposed "growth" is, approaches brilliance. I appreciate that this film steps back from the genre assumption that the happy ending always means getting the girl.

However (and it's a big however) I don't think people were turned off the film's later third only because of this destabilizing switcheroo. The problem is that though Apatow is all along leading towards the moment when he hammers home that George's reunion with Laura is not the good thing genre convention dictates it should be, before that point he seems as usual to have little idea of what to do with a romantic storyline or a female character. Mann's Laura is embarrassingly underwritten and prone to script-dictated reversals at a moment's notice; never is she treated like a real living, breathing human woman, which makes it somewhat hypocritical when Apatow ultimately tries to paint Sandler's George as clueless about engaging with women. The film loses me during the long sojourn at Laura's house, not because I'm wishing for the crude comedy on display elsewhere, necessarily, but because it strikes me as trite and underdeveloped drama.

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