Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Funny People, Serious Problems

"Funny People" can safely be described as Judd Apatow's first drama. While it features many of the ingredients that made his previous films so successful, the mixture has been tweaked ever so slightly. One cannot blame him for trying. His unique mix of raunchy humor and winning earnestness has proven wildly successful, but it has also spawned countless emulations. Attempting to change the game once again is only a natural move. Unfortunately, "Funny People" feels like the work of an artist who has inched ever so slightly out of his comfort zone.

The film tells the story of George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a middle-aged comedian who finds out that he is about to die. In a somewhat half-baked attempt to sort out his life before he goes, he hires an aspiring comedian (played by Seth Rogen, who looks like he is about fifty pounds lighter and, somehow, as a result, fifteen years younger) to be his personal assistant. The film wastes no time at the start, laying the bad news on the audience about two minutes after the opening credits roll. It sets the film down a strange path, wherein Simmons' death is a foregone conclusion, but it is ruminated on constantly.

The structure of the film remains strange to the end, with a considerable twist coming an hour and a half into the two and a half hour-long running time. This has the effect of leading the film away from its established setting and supporting characters. The studios seemed not to mind revealing this twist in trailers, to my bafflement. Without giving it away, I will say that the film's latter half involves Simmons' pursuit of a long-lost love interest. One could argue that the incongruity of this second half is only appropriate; Simmon's aspirations seem irrational and naive, and Apatow's script smartly treats them as such, while still allowing him to remain sympathetic. It also, however, sidelines all of the subplots involving Rogen's character who was, up until that point, as important to the plot as Sandler's. It leaves all of these plotlines to be hastily resolved after the film's climax and leads one to wonder just how important he ever was to the plot.

Thankfully, Apatow's ability to create extremely lovable, entertaining and complex characters does not suffer. Sandler plays a man who is burdened by how beloved he is, at once self-deprecating, sleazy, endearing and wry. It is a more honest and mature version of the losers he has played in his own productions for years. (The film even opens with real-life footage of a young Sandler. While this highlights the obvious parallels to Sandler's life, it also creates a strange effect, as if the film is memorializing the actor, not the character he is playing.) Rogen displays a bit of range here, too, as an atypically dorky, young character. Even Jonah Hill seems a bit more earnest in this film; he still plays an asshole, but he is more subdued this time.

Leslie Mann's character, on the other hand, seems to suffer from the film's inconsistencies. Her first prolonged scene has her character crying hysterically after admitting she still has feelings for Simmons. It does not play well, and the scene veers erratically between attempts at gravely serious emotion and delicately endearing comedy. Throughout the film, the fine line she is supposed to walk remains unclear. This is best illustrated when she resorts to caricature during a serious argument with her husband (Eric Bana). Nothing she says fails to be funny, but it is jarring, as the film struggles to decide how, exactly, it wishes to portray her frustration. Bana has no such burden, as he steals many of the later scenes, playing a boisterous Australian stereotype... although he is no exception to the fact that, with Apatow, no character remains one-dimensional for long.

With so many strong performances, it is clear that Apatow brings his strong handle on character development to directing, as well. Yet, the unique tone of this film exposes his weaknesses as a visual storyteller. There are moments in "Funny People" where sunlight falls through trees in some painfully overt uses of the pathetic fallacy. The camera will occasionally zoom slowly in on a teary-eyed face as well – something that plays like gooey melodrama anywhere outside of the 1960's. Scenes of children playing employ all of the tired sentimentality of a perfume commercial. (They happen to be Apatow's own kids. This film has a very strange relationship with the Fourth Wall; Apatow gives his real-life wife and children a lecherous husband/father and he eulogizes the very-much-alive Adam Sandler.) Moments such as these indicate that Apatow still needs to learn how to shoot straight drama. I do not doubt that he is capable of doing so, but he must learn to approach it with the same simplicity that he employs with comedy.

"Funny People" has numerous strong points. Unlike Apatow's past efforts, however, they fail to add up to something very cohesive. The drama is occasionally affected and the comedy even misses a beat or two, with a strange profusion of penis jokes (as in, almost all of the jokes are about penises... with the conspicuous exception of Sarah Silverman's cameo). I would never fault a filmmaker for trying something different, but it does not seem like Apatow quite has the chops for this sort of thing. What fundamentally sets this film apart from "Knocked Up" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin" is that these characters know that they are funny and, therefore, are aware of the irony that lies in their suffering. It is a weighty concept – one that proves a bit too weighty for this film. Nevertheless, there is not any false advertising here; these people are, indeed, funny.

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