Tuesday, December 15, 2009

DVD Review: Funny People

If you look hard enough while watching a Judd Apatow film you will find yourself amazed that there is material that exists – lurking beneath all the penis and fart jokes – that is capable of moving you. I don’t think there has been a writer who has been more polarizing or misunderstood since David Mamet decided to start making movies. Like Mamet, Apatow’s points are often lost on casual audiences who can’t seem to wade their way through the pervasiveness of the vulgarity. Mamet has his “eff bombs” and racial/homophobic slurs, and Apatow has a joke bin that consists of penis/male grooming and fart jokes. Why am I saying all of this? Because I think with Apatow’s language, like Mamet, has a certain rhythm to it, and either that music jives with you or it doesn’t. Mamet’s actors are often looked at as wooden and boring – one note if you will – but the music that is Mamet’s script calls for a certain delivery that, to someone who is not a fan, seems stilted…I find it hypnotic and infectious. The same goes for Apatow, and even though his latest endeavor, Funny People, has a horribly long and awkward third act it doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable. I like the music that the dialogue makes in an Apatow film…it’s a refreshing break from the usual mainstream comedies that Hollywood spits out every year, so even when Apatow fails, it’s a fantastically interesting failure.

The film’s identity can only be described as schizophrenic. However, despite the odd ebb and flow of the film and all-wrong final act there is something interesting going on in Apatow’s film. The story is about George (Adam Sandler), a famous comic who struggles with trying to understand the latest bit of news he’s gotten from the doctor: he has a blood disease and he’s going to die. George doesn’t have the circle of friends one is supposed to rely on in this particular time, so one night while slumming it at a local Improv he decides to go on stage right before another comic, Ira (Seth Rogen). This kick starts not a typical new-friend-to-the-dying-man type formula one would expect, but more of an opportunity for Ira the comic, as he is employed by George to start writing jokes for him.

For the first hour of the film I was enthralled – completely fascinated by the plotless meanderings of Apatow and his actors as they provide a glimpse into a secret society of stand up comics. Apatow has a lot of authority on the subject as he was writing for comedians when he was only 19. Apatow puts a lot of obvious love and care and authenticity into these early scenes (he and the other actors, some who had never done stand up before, all went out to clubs and honed their craft…going all method for the film) where we see Ira and George bouncing ideas off of each other, and the way that comedians are always dying inside when people expect them to always be funny. It must get really annoying to always have people respond with “are you serious?” …I wonder how any comedian can get through something without their motives being questioned.

Throughout the first hour Apatow seems to be achieving something that we’ve never seen from him: a real film. That’s not to discount his other two films, The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up (I loved both), but I think with Funny People we see the maturing Apatow (now 41) going for more nuanced laughs (there’s still plenty of penis jokes, don’t worry) amid his usual pandering to the weed smoking thritysomethings that he seems to be writing for. There are still some great Apatow moments where he really digs his claws into pop culture, but the dialogue in this first hour felt more natural than in his previous films – as funny as those lines are (“I always thought Matt Damon was kind of a Streisand, but he’s rocking the shit in this one”…”If any of us get laid tonight it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich”) – I actually felt like the characters here weren’t just existing to spout his clever, pop culture infused dialogue that often act as momentum breakers – “look at me” type jokes that are damn funny, but don’t flow with the film (kind of like Mamet’s language…very showy…impressive, but showy). 

One example of this is the addition of a new actor to the Apatow troupe, Jason Schwartzman. He plays Mark, one of Ira’s roommates (along with Leo played by Jonah Hill, who is thankfully dialing it down here, sticking with the maturation theme) and fellow comedian who got himself a sitcom called “Yo, Teach”, and in a hilarious bit we see Mark watching a clip of his own show (where he asks the students who the best rapper is…they reply Kanye West…he responds: “You know who else was a great rapper…”William Sh-Sh-Sh-Shakespeare”) with a girl who isn’t all that impressed with his performance (the actual clip of the show they did for the movie is one of the funniest things of the film, and a lot of it has to do with Schwartzman).

The male leads in this film aren’t as awkward as in Apatow’s previous films, and there’s no geek fantasy at play here like in Knocked Up; Ira is awkward, but doesn’t succeed at getting the girl right away, Mark is sure of himself and his good looks and exudes that male attitude and confidence that is rare for an Apatow film (at least in a genuine way…Jason Siegel’s confidence in Knocked Up was just meant for laughs).

There’s also some nice touches with the strategic cameos Apatow has in the film: Paul Reiser, Norm MacDonald, Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano, and Eminem just to name a few don’t take away from the moment or what Apatow is trying to say – these aren’t “look at me” type cameos – rather they add to the layers of subtext buried beneath the more obvious humor: these funny people gnash their teeth behind every off-stage joke they make. It’s in these moments that Apatow really seems to be seriously explicating the love/hate relationship with being famous.

One last observation about the first hour: I found it fascinating that Apatow doesn’t really glorify the life of the stand up comic. Sure, these characters aren’t really struggling, but I like how when George calls Ira and ask him and Leo to help him write jokes Ira informs him that Leo is flaky, when in reality Ira just wants all of the glory for himself and doesn’t want to share any of the mentorship relationship he thinks he’s getting from George (another fascinating angle from the movie). These comics all bounce ideas off of each other, but they also steal jokes without giving credit and are always looking for how they can advance their own careers, friends be damned. It’s a shame that this fascinating opening had to give way to a rather conventional buddy comedy formula.

That formula consists of George hoping to get one last chance with the “one who got away”. This is Laura (played by Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann in a ho-hum performance) who is now married to the always-travelling hunky Aussie Clark (Eric Bana in a throwaway role). They’re of course having problems and she suspects of him of cheating and this all leads to the inevitable: George and Laura sleep together and dream of happier times. But George’s doctor throws a tree branch in their spokes as George receives good news: his illness is waning…he can continue living a normal life. But what does normal life mean after you’ve been told to prepare for death? This is too large an existential quandary for Apatow, but I give him effort points for at least broaching the subject. The problem lies in his reluctance to go for the jugular. George really doesn’t change his ways, and that's what is fascinating, instead we get cookie-cutter epiphanies that feel false, and by the end of the film I know I was supposed to empathize with Laura and how she feels stuck in a loveless marriage, but I actually started to loathe her, and began feeling sorry for Clark. That’s what Apatow gets wrong; the feeling at the end of the movie – the back-and-forth, jerking around of the audience’s emotions that occurs – that’s what sinks this thing from being a truly great modern comedy.

The supporting performances are all wonderful, inducing some big laughs throughout the 140 minute runtime…which is par for the course with Apatow, a director who understands the value of supporting characters and how they are crucial they are to making comedy work (this is evident throughout his career, even the movies he produces), but doesn't understand the importance of pacing. The two leads, Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler, are great, too. Sandler channels his inner Barry from Punch Drunk Love clenching his teeth between each forced bit of conversation as he tries to make nice with family and pseudo-friends before he dies. He handles Apatow’s words well, and if I have to endure Adam Sandler then this is how I would prefer doing it. Rogen, however, was shocking in this movie. The slimmed down Canadian ditches his normal comedic rhythms, not punching up the lines with his usual Rogenisms, rather, going for a more nuanced delivery. He’s still awkward as hell (he’ll always be the master of that shtick, along with Paul Rudd and Michael Cera), but it’s not as attention-getting here, and I thought it was a nice touch for Apatow to tone down Rogen and force him to do some real comedic acting (timing and such) instead of just being that funny dude that we could see ourselves hanging out with.

I’m still quite interested in what Apatow and company do next. I think he could stand to use a break and give Hollywood some time to recover from the onslaught of projects with his name attached. Still, I think he, like Mamet, remains one of the most fascinating writers working today, and Funny People is a perfect example of a filmmaker who is willing to rise up and move out of the penis and fart jokes and deliver a comedy that explicates deeper themes about being a single male who confronts the dilemmas of getting older. One half extremely fascinating procedural on the inner workings of the stand up comedy world, and the other half failed experiment, Funny People was an experience – though a tad long – that I was glad to have. It’s a film that should still be seen despite its unevenness.

Here's an 'episode' of "Yo Teach":


  1. That's a bingo. Apatow's films always hint at something deeper that he never quite delves into. This is the first one that really goes there, at least for a while, before backing away again. I hated the conservative, regressive 40 Year Old Virgin and liked aspects of the equally troubling Knocked Up (which was certainly funny, at least), but this is the first film of his where halfway through, I thought I was actually seeing a great film. Of course then it all falls apart but I do like that the film's arc requires George to realize that sometimes the happy ending is not the one where the hero gets the girl; it just takes a painfully long time for the film to make that revelation.

  2. "...like Mamet’s language…very showy…impressive, but showy..."

    I don't think Apatow and Mamet should be compared, even in passing. Apatow is trying to impress with his jokes so they do stop the movie in its tracks. For Mamet, the language is the point (more at times than even the story being told). Mametspeak is a form of verse, like iambic pentameter or some other verse used in poetry.

    Changing the subject, you're so right when you use the word "schizophrenic." The first 2/3 of this movie is so engrossing. But after Leslie Mann appears the movie turns into a weird James Brooks-type (I think you or Ed aptly compared it to Brooks at the time of its release) dramedy.

  3. Ed:

    I obviously liked his earlier films more than you did, but I'm right there with ya about how for the first hour or so I felt like I was watching one of the better comedies of the year. It says something about the last part of the film that even I, an Apatow apologist, was growing impatient. I was willing to forgive the running time of his other two films because I enjoyed the periphery characters, but here everything at the end just felt so forced. I think casting his wife in the lead role may have been a mistake. I didn't buy anything she was trying to emotionally sell me at the end of the film.

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. Tony:

    What!?! You don't like my Apatow/Mamet comparison! Haha. Yeah, maybe I went a little too far there, but I was trying to make a point about my feelings towards Apatow's writing. I personally feel that both of their writing has the ability to stop a movie in its tracks, as you put it. It doesn't lessen my love for either filmmaker, though. I think one of the reasons why I loves Mamet's Redbelt so much (and the same with Spartan) is because he put his odd rhythmic language into an action film. It felt so weird and different...and that's a good thing.

    I do think that Mamet's writing slows a movie doewn when we're talkign about something like State and Main (again, a movie I loved) because his language just doesn't flow as well in a comedy.

    I think Apatow captures the essence of a bunch of guys sitting around who have been raised by pop culture. My brother and I and some of my friends sometimes converse in the way people do in an Apatow film. Usually that's just when we're hanging out...Apatow's writing is obviously an unrealistic portrayal of how people formally talk...but so his Mamet's, and I kind of like that unrealistic dialogue sometimes.

    I think that was Ed who called it James Brook-type filmmaking at the end. I wonder if it could have come off better at the end had Leslie Mann not been cast. It's a frustrating film that's for sure.

    Thanks as always for your comment, Tony.

  5. I think the Apatow/Mamet comparison might not be the best as Apatow leaves huge gaps of room for improvisation. Most of the time, his usual crew has such great interplay that it works, but there are moments in all three of his films where the plot just hits a brick wall so the actors can riff on dick jokes. They're funny, yes, and they obviously feel like real dudes hanging out because they more or less are, but these scenes kill the momentum. I find that Kevin Smith has a firmer hand at holding extended conversations without the film lagging, though he also displays a much bigger, unfortunate love affair with the most eye-rolling dick and fart jokes that even as a fan I fast-forward through.

    I'm pretty much in agreement with everyone that this film started out with such maddening promise, only to spiral at the end. I felt like the movie ended with George basically in the exact same place he started, but with the implication on the writer-director's part that he'd somehow come a long way when he really didn't. Still, I enjoyed Rogen's ongoing attempt to branch out (he started with Zack & Miri and continued with Observe and Report, both flawed, O&R in particular, but showing him actually acting), and Sandler was indeed channeling his PDL chops. But it's not a good sign when, in this supposedly deep and contemplative narrative, the most consistently rewarding feature was Jason Schwartzman's ancillary character. The same holds true for Aziz Asari's piss-take on Dane Cook.

    I don't supposed the unrated version fleshes anything out? Funny People was one of those odd films tht I felt was far too long but somehow needed yet more time to explore its ideas.

  6. Jake:

    Thanks for the comment. I like what you say about the Apatow/Mamet comparison. I think the broadest point I was trying to make with the comparison is that both writers have their detractors based solely on the fact that what they write is rather vulgar. So I think in that sense -- the fact that both writers have "more" to their writing than the surface level vulgarity -- they are similar.

    I also agree with you that it's odd that such a long film felt like it needed more time to flesh things out. I too think that Apatow somehow felt that the George character came to a realization that was clearer in the mind of Apatow than the audience. I thought the most promising aspect of the film's final act was that George doesn't learn anything, and that unlike a lot of "disease" pictures, here we have a protagonist who kind of rejects the deathbed epiphany, and once he hears the good news that he isn't going to die, just kind of coasts through the friendships and promises he made when he thought he was going to die. Unfortunately Apatow didn't explore that to the fullest, and what's left is a rather hollow third act that only left me wondering about the good movie that was lying beneath the surface.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Jake.

  7. Kevin, you're a smart kid... I've seen you rap.

    You can compare Apatow/Mamet anytime you like.


  8. I liked this movie a lot.

  9. I liked Leslie Mann in this film. What exactly makes her so hateful by the end? I will agree that the film goes soft in its last fifteen minutes, but up to that point I was pretty well in the bag for the film, and, for all intents and purposes, I still am.

    Still, what was Ira thinking, putting "Keep Me in Your Heart" on that mix CD! What did he think was going to happen!?

  10. I'm not sure anyone thinks she's hateful, Bill (unless I missed something in the comments). But I thought Mann's performance was weak and self-conscious, certainly not on the level with the character she was expected to play.

    Her casting struck me as egregious nepotism. By that, I mean that I didn't have a problem with her in smaller roles in Apatow's previous films, but here it seemed like she was out of her league and simply cast because she's married to Apatow. She has an annoying grating vocal quality that worked in the bit parts he had in his other films, but not in this one.

    I think someone like Robin Wright, Meg Ryan, or even Madchen Amick would have worked far better here.

  11. Bill:

    I think that Apatow's plan backfired at the end of this movie. I felt like he wanted us to feel sorry for her situation being married to Eric Bana who by the end of the film ends up being a pretty decent guy when compared to her and George. I don't know I ended up disliking her character far more than the Bana character and part of it may have been that Mann's emoting at the end of the film grated on my nerves. I guess by the end she's no more hateful and selfish than the rest of the characters. I still don't know if that's the effect Apatow was going for, so it just felt weird to me that I didn't empathize with her character.

    I liked the film too, but I don't think it came close to realizing its full potential. Which is a shame because I really like Apatow's work and I really wanted to love this film, not just like it.

    Thanks for the comment, Bill.

  12. Tony:

    Her casting struck me as egregious nepotism.

    I love what you say there. I agree that someone like Robin Wright or Meg Ryan (which would have been funny in the Apatow context considering Knocked Up...plus she hasn't had a really good role in a long time) would have been a lot more interesting than Mann. Mann is someone I like as a periphery character, kind of like how Jack Black or Jonah Hill should be used. She's good for what her range allows her to do.

  13. But the point of the Bana character was just that: he was actually a fairly decent guy. But can you blame his wife for thinking otherwise, since she knew he cheated on her? Only once, but she believed -- understandably, I'd say -- he did so more often. Anyway, that's the whole idea of the ending, that she realizes Bana really is who she should be with. It's not like she brains him with an iron and then runs off with George. She realized the same things you guys did.

    Plus, I thought her performance was good, so take that, why don't you.

  14. I haven't seen this, and so I didn't read the review, but I did skim the comments (I'm strange like that), and this jumped out at me ...

    Her casting struck me as egregious nepotism. By that, I mean that I didn't have a problem with her in smaller roles in Apatow's previous films, but here it seemed like she was out of her league and simply cast because she's married to Apatow.

    I agree. But here's a theory: I think her casting is less about giving her a more prominent role than she would have otherwise earned (a sweet gift to a wife who isn't quite up to the task, from the sounds of it) than about validating Apatow's comedy.

    The biggest knock against him (at least after the one about his films being overlong, I guess) is that Apatow creates stories about slobbering, mindless, careless dumbfuck men who manage to land smart, attractive women. People say it's unrealistic. And maybe it is or maybe it isn't. To be sure, it's at least unconvincing. (I mean, in Knocked Up it's not a matter of what Rogen looks like but what an ass he is. But I digress...)

    Anyway, Apatow defenders always play the Leslie Mann card, which goes something like this: "Apatow is a short little bearded man who makes dick jokes and he has a hot wife, so that validates everything." Except that it doesn't, because Apatow is thoughtful (at least creatively, I won't speak to him as a husband or father) and he's talented (ditto). No, he doesn't look like Brad Pitt. But to suggest he is somehow like Rogen's slacker in Knocked Up is just silly.

    Anyway ...

    My theory is that by putting Mann front and center here Apatow is playing defense, reminding everyone that he has the hot wife, and thus validating his dumbfuck-gets-the-girl fantasies. Or at least attempting to do so. Amazingly, this myth works on a lot of people. Apatow defenders cite Mann like they're Dark Knight fanboys citing comic books. Lost in all of this is how silly it is to imply that a successful filmmaker is an undesirable catch.

    What was my original point again? Sorry, this has been a rushed ramble.

    Point is: I bet Mann's casting was less about a husband giving his wife a gift than about trying to validate the Apatow universe. It's still cheap, though. Just a theory. Discuss ...

  15. Bill:

    I admit it's been a while since I've thought about the movie. I've had the review I posted in the can for about three weeks now...so I may have to watch it again and reconsider my feelings towards the characters at the end. I still think that ending felt out of place, though.

  16. Jason:

    Your theory sounds good to me. I agree with pretty much everything you say, and yet I gravitate toward his films because of the very fact that he "speaks" to people like me. I'm a pop culture nerd who is rough around the edges and am lucky to be married to a beautiful woman. I identify with every aspect of his characters except the weed smoking. However, I agree with you that to suggest that Apatow is like Rogen's character in Knocked Up is silly, and you're dead-on about the fact that Apatow has a hot wife in Leslie Mann because he is, as you say, "thoughtful" and "talented". And that will usually trump looks when you're trying to court an intelligent woman.

    The slob makes for a somewhat funny trope, but I agree with you that unlike the nerdy Andy in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Rogen's character in Knocked Up just kind of seems like a dick in certain scenes.

    Anyway...your theory is sound and I look forward to your thoughts on the film when you see it.

  17. Yeah, see, there's a huge difference between nerd and loser in my book. The main character in Virgin is nerdy or geeky. But the only people who would call him a loser are the closer-to-losers-themselves that he hangs out with -- the kind of cavemen who think that being a virgin is being a loser, the kind of dimwits who think "I know you're gay because ..." debates are close to profound.

    Rogen's character in Knocked Up isn't just a loser because he smokes pot (whatever), or wants to hang with guys who fart on one another's pillows (though that would be enough), or because he doesn't have a job (ditto), or because his get-rich scheme implies that he's fascinated by movie nudity but isn't smart enough to realize it's already on the Web to be found (ditto again). He's a loser because this beautiful, smart woman drifts into his life and he essentially ignores her. It's like entering the lottery every week, finally winning and then leaving the cash prize on the roof of your car while driving away.

    You say you are "rough around the edges," but Rogen's character probably couldn't spell that, not that he would be self-aware enough to make that observation in the first place. You ain't that rough, my friend.

    Anyway, maybe Funny People moves things back toward Virgin a bit. I'll be interested to see.