August 6, 2009

Review: A Serious Thing About 'Funny People'

"It's a mentor story. It's a disease movie. It's a coming-of-age movie. It's a movie about trying to restart an old romance. It's 11 different movies rolled into one." — Judd Apatow

Suddenly, I really wish I was dying (kidding). But it would make for an efficient, interesting way to define all the meaningful, lost relationships in my life. Prolific comedy writer/producer/director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) in his third feature has made a very decidedly serious film about the rather insightful world of comedians. Funny People is a deeply honest, personal, open look into male issues of death, legacy, mortality, career, and comedy through the lens of a lonely, disturbed man who is professionally funny.

Apatow shows his growing maturity as he indulges (maybe a little too much) in his artistic sensibilities as he casts his longtime friends, comedians, his wife and kids in a dramatic work of comedy. Apatow's telling of the triumphs and struggles of comedians through their bonds and relationships is masterful in its humour and humanity, but his flare for romantic drama and conflict is not as skilled or thoughtful. This is a very divisive, thought-provoking film about life and laughter that is much too long and has had a polarizing reception so far.

A knock on Apatow's directorial work has been his bland camera work; he addresses this by this by hiring longtime Steven Spielberg cinematographer, Oscar-winner Janusz Kaminski. Apatow gets a lot more ambitious from a storytelling and filmmaking perspective as the film provides lush photography, mise-en-scène, and looses a traditional storytelling framework. What Funny People aims to do is capture the regret and follies of youth as seen through the lens of the middle-aged. Adam Sandler as famous comedian George Simmons wants to relive his past glory and rewrite his mistakes. He is so sad and lonely as his jokes mask his pain and misery.

George gets very sick and decides to shun his bad yet sucessful career in movies to get back to his roots in stand up comedy. The opening scene of a real-life Adam Sandler making a prank call, twenty years ago as Apatow, his then roommate, videotapes it is so pure and truthful. Sandler (or George in this case) was making his friends laugh for the sheer purity and enjoyment of it. His character, George smiles at his earliest work and disdains his commercial, artistically devoid generic comedies. If he is going to die, he does not want to be remembered for what he considers his failures. Many scenes cut to George or others sitting around watching his bad movies as a merman, adult baby, or other man-childs and he has a conflicted smirk as he enjoys making others laugh but laments how he sold out. Whereas, you smiles fondly relfecting on his early work.

Funny People reveals more about Judd Apatow than any of his previous work. It really delves into the mind of an intelligent, funny artist who has to juggle multiple conflicting sensibilities in his personal and professional lives. How much is one willing to sacrifice personally and artistically in order to succeed financially and professionally? How does one define their legacy and contribution to the world? At the end of our lives, we look back at our accomplishments and smile but mourn our mistakes and missteps. George faced by near death has a stark look at his life and ponders a second chance to right his wrongs. He aims to make the most of things through the nudging of Ira (Seth Rogen), but is essentially an unchanged person and is probably doomed to loneliness unless he can learn something significant about relationships. George looks back and smiles at the highlights of his career and how he will live forever through his comedy but how he will die alone with no family around him. He is mourning his personal life while celebrating his professional one. George is so unlikeable as a gruff, cold, distant, misogynistic ogre as he uses his comedic gifts to make people laugh and like him.

The acting is all-around stellar. Sandler again proves his dramatic acting chops just as in Punch-Drunk Love. His mannerisms and cult of personality are seamlessly mixed with his dramatic performance. Seth Rogen as his protégé/assistant, Ira is a standout as he actually acts and plays a character out of his usual repertoire. He is the sweet, charming, and affable as a wide-eyed comedic sidekick without the cynicism of others around him. A misused Leslie Mann shines with an understated honesty in a difficult role as George's old flame, Laura. Australian Eric Bana as Mann's husband is hilarious, hamming it up as he returns to his comedic roots and really fits in with Apatow's troupe. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman (who also contributes to the soundtrack) are genuinely honest and funny as Ira's more successful roommates. Aubrey Plaza as Rogen's love interest, Daisy is criminally underused as she sheds the clichés of typical female love interests with a very deadpan style of humour and charm showing strong female maturity. The whole host of cameos by well-known comedians and musicians are well-placed and executed.

The focus of most of Funny People is the developing bond between Ira and George. Apatow sacrifices a satisfying conclusion and culmination to their relationship and conflict in order to explore a disastrous search for love lost with Leslie Mann that starts and stops in a span of a couple days. Mann does a great job as George's old love who also desperately wants relive her youth but a big difference between her and George is that her life is relatively good. She is not lonely. She has a family, but has a part of her unfulfilled and wants George to fulfill it. The emotional payoffs do not feel particularly earned or well done. The film tries far too much without succeeding and meanders to an unearned dramatic ending.

The tone of film drastically shifts and changes as the George/Laura relationship is so rushed and certain scenes that are suppose to hold dramatic weight and show decisions and traits of characters feel disingenuous. The way characters make quick decisions and change their minds feels dishonest as realizations and relationship dynamics are not fleshed out enough to justify the ending. The side trip to Northern California to address the romance between George and Laura takes the movie off course. The film would have been a comedic masterpiece a la Annie Hall had it only 86'd its "murder" subplot. Funny People is more like Apatow's television work, Freaks and Geeks, than Knocked Up or his producing efforts (Superbad, Pineapple Express). Funny People ramps up out of nowhere and tries to offer a quick but meaningful emotional punch to end of but fails and does not quite earn this.

"I'm glad you don't know me. You'd be let down."
All in all, Funny People is a striking piece from a true auteur as a staggering work of honesty and humour. Apatow has dialed down the frat house mentality and made a seriously funny movie about art, legacy, relationships, and the male psyche. The detail and care displayed on film is clear, but the work almost crumbles under the weight of its ambition. It is rumoured that Apatow paired the film down from his original four hour plus working cut and it shows. The luxurious comedic pace of the first two acts is jettisoned as the romantic subplot gets into gear in order to end just under two and a half hours. Walking away from the film, I feel insightful, funny, intelligent men are often psychologically complex individuals who often compromise in order to succeed, are isolated by their ambition, suffer from an attachment to boyhood hijinx, and constantly question their own life choices as well as are inexplicably obsessed with their own genitalia.

Funny People is a work of personal self-reflection on the nature of comedy, but its focus is too large as its one or two movies too many rolled into one. Death does not really change you, it just makes things more obvious and clearer. Ultimately, change is just as arduous and difficult during any stage. This is an emotionally honest film about men and the nature of mortality. The writing is excellent but the direction needs work. Funny People is a serious, if not self-indulgent, work of comedy with dick jokes. Despite its flaws, it is seriously funny. Clearly, the message is "if you love someone don't let them slip away."

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