' ' Cinema Romantico: Funny People

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Funny People

The third true "film by Judd Apatow" opens with comedians riffing and closes with comedians riffing and has a lot of scenes of comedians riffing in the first and second acts but not so much in what, I guess, is the third act and it is this strange, overlong passage that is "Funny People's" ultimate curse but also sort of its blessing.

Adam Sandler stars as a once famous comedian now turned famous movie actor George Simmons. As you may have read, the movie opens with real-life footage from many years ago of a young Sandler making prank phone calls. It is actually quite effective, allowing for an authentic segue from the young, carefree George Simmons to the older, current George Simmons who, despite having a sprawling mansion, no longer has anyone with whom to make those prank phone calls. He's all alone in a bad way. The film then gets us right to its primary plot point - George is dying, fast, from a rare blood disease unless some experimental medicine can do the unlikely and cure him.

Faced with this frightening proposition George returns to his roots in the form of stand-up comedy. At the club he encounters Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) who is young but not exactly an up and comer. His roommates, Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), who has a role on a terrible sitcom, "Yo Teach", that we all know could easily exist in the real world, seem to be on the fast track to success. But George takes to Ira. He asks Ira to write some jokes for him, though he also asks him to be his personal assistant in this time of crisis. Ira, desperate, excited, agrees.

George and Ira form a curious relationship that isn't exactly a friendship. How much of a stretch was it for Sandler to play this part? Probably not much, but either way he's darn good. Everything is a joke. Or an insult. Whatever Ira does, whatever Ira says, whatever anyone does or says, for that matter, George replies with a joke or an insult. He often turns to that semi-Spanish accent Sandler has used in his own life, suggesting someone trying to get far, far away from their own persona. Ira puts up with it, perhaps because this is his ticket off of sleeping on a sofa bed and working at the deli counter.

One brief moment in particular seemed to summarize "Funny People", or at least summarize what "Funny People" was up to that point. George has finally clued in the world outside of his mansion to his disease and he we see him chatting with the real life Andy Dick. And Andy Dick, of course, instantly commences to riffing about the whole ordeal. There is absolutely no time for any seriousness or real emotion of any kind within the worlds of these people because everything is potential fodder for comedy. Everything.

You may have also read of Apatow's expanding ambition in "Funny People". This comes in the form of the lost love of George's life, Laura (Leslie Mann, the real life Mrs. Apatow). It was 12 years ago. George cheated on her. That was that. Now she is married to an Australian named Clarke (Eric Bana) who cheats on her too. Apparently.

Having learned George is sick, Laura tries to reconnect with him. This sets the stage for the film's elongated detour into the world of Marin County (the setting of which allows for my favorite line of the movie, a throwaway about pizza quality). Just what is Apatow up to here? Against Ira's advice, he and George find themselves having a day with Laura and her two kids at Laura's home. Her husband is out of town. A day turns into the night. Laura's husband unexpectedly returns. The night turns into the next day. It keeps going and going....but to what point and purpose?

The material at this point in the movie is tough. A married woman cheating on her husband with her children essentially right there. Then her husband turns back up and even though it feels as if he was written primarily as a blowhard lout Eric Bana actually does a decent job of getting some empathy here and there for the guy and we soon realize Laura is left with a far less severe Sophie's Choice moment. This guy or that guy? Is it worth trying to save her marriage? The idea that Apatow is chasing here brings to mind this article by Judy Berman I just read on Salon.

But the presentation of all this isn't always tough. George does not really do much of anything, other than having his disease, to get himself into this position. Laura gravitates back toward him because, well, she has to or the movie doesn't have that necessary conflict. She's obviously drawn to these sorts of men but the screenplay does not always feel like it's being fair to Laura. She's just the pawn in this game. Plus, Apatow still wants to work in the comedy and you can't resolve situations this dire with the old reliable Everyone Fights On The Lawn. That's too easy.

One neat thing Apatow does manage is to leave George's character almost arc-less. Really, at the end, what has he learned? Watch it and tell me. Doesn't it seem as if George's problems get Ira and Laura and even Clarke to grow up more than him? I think it does.

These plot developments show a filmmaker - one who has had a stunning run of success this decade - willing to get out of his comfort zone. Good or bad, I say good for him.

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