Funny People: Would That it Were So

07/31/2009 12:51 PM |

Funny people, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie MannHey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart laugh off their art-house pretensions to find out during what sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating popcorn. This week they chuckle through Judd Apatow’s Funny People, but not the funny parts.

Did you get the same impression that I did, Henry, from Judd Apatow’s epic bromantic comedy about comedians, Funny People, that he’s gunning for the kind of career-defining meta-message that Billy Wilder conveyed about the studio system in Sunset Boulevard and that David Lynch articulated about millennial cinema in Mulholland Drive? Put more clearly, Funny People seems to be very self-consciously reaching beyond the realm of masturbation jokes and barely adult romance in order to (as you might write) Make A Point about the entertainment industry. If so, the weird mid-movie cameo extravaganza (featuring Andy Dick, Charles Fleischer, Norm MacDonald, Dave Attell, Paul Reiser, George Wallace, Ray Romano and, inexplicably, Eminem) accidentally makes a very incisive point about the patriarchal synergy that fuels America’s television, music and movie corporations.

It’s as if Funny People were a typical Apatovian comedy about guys struggling to become adults that suddenly gets steamrolled by a star-vehicle backstage comedy set in the world of stand-up. We open with famous comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler) learning that he has a rare kind of leukemia, which only a miracle treatment from Canada (which will one day solve all our healthcare woes, surely) might save him. One Andy Kauffman-ian performance later and he meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling comedian living on the couch of his more successful buddies Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman). This is how the two narrative worlds collide, and for the rest of the film’s 146 minutes George and Ira’s on-and-off platonic relationship evolves in some strange bizarro world where everyone is an aspiring comedian.

And yet, for all the densely packed punch lines and scenes in comedy clubs, isn’t this movie at its funniest when it’s trying really hard to be honest? For instance, the late confrontation between Simmons and his ex-fiancé’s (Leslie Mann) parodically Australian husband (a scene-stealing Eric Bana) strikes a hilariously awkward balance between actual drama and a satire of family melodrama. Rogen, meanwhile, is painfully unfunny in nearly every scene, and even Sandler is basically spouting excerpts from his old routines. It’s the supporting players like Hill, Schwartzman, Aubrey Plaza’s embryonic feminist comedian Daisy and even an underused RZA as a coworker at Rogen’s day job that kept me laughing. Sadly, Apatow leaves them in the shadows of the great crisis of masculinity being suffered by our entitled martyrs Rogen and Sandler. What side-plot did you find more interesting than Funny People’s main narrative?

Could you really say that Funny People has a “main narrative”? Every tangled story strand felt like a subplot to me. Apatow has to be one of the most inefficient storytellers in Hollywood, and it’s amazing that he gets away with it film after film. (“Is it cool to like [Apatow] again?” our colleague Jesse Hassenger wondered this morning. Sorry, but I don’t think so!) The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and now this movie all suffer from the same problem: they go on way too long, self indulgently long, playing with drama with the sophistication of a sappy Lifetime movie. A lot of comedies (like, say, Wedding Crashers) have this plotting problem nowadays; the comedy doesn’t inform the story, it’s just a gloss that makes some trite romance or whatnot go down more easily—until the third act, when the filmmakers get mired down in humorlessly tying up the loose ends of the plot that no one cares about. “You come for the testoteriffic ambience,” Jessica Winter wrote a few years ago in the Voice, “and you stay for the chick flick.” The American Pie Effect. But we’re here to laugh, right? Not get wrapped up in the phony lives of 2-D characters?

Apatow gets away with it, I think, because he’s usually so good at making you laugh early on, though that’s not really the case here. The pleasures of a directed-by-Apatow movie (as opposed to some of his prolific producer vehicles) have always come from watching a bunch of funny guys be funny together, from his knack for fostering improv-eriffic bull sessions; but Judd really cuts down on that kind of mad-libbing here. Schwartzman is a hell of a comic actor (Rushmore! I ♥Huckabees!), but he doesn’t have a mastery of the improvisatory riffing style at which an Apatow regular like Jason Segel (too old for this movie) excels.

Speaking of Schwartzman, his character’s Kotteresque sitcom within the film, Yo, Teach!, was hilariously bad, huh? It’s strange; Apatow seems to have such a keen sense when it comes to lampooning the dreck that our culture produces; a running joke seemed to be how bad Adam Sandler’s movies are in real life. Simmons’ blockb(l)usters include trash that Sandler or his pal Rob Schneider might produce, like Merman or my favorite, Re-Do, in which Sandler plays an infant. (“You’re the one who asked the wizard to make you young again!” his co-star, Justin Long in a cameo, chastises.) “He’s funny,” Bana’s character says at one point, “but his movies aren’t.”

You’re right about Funny People being funniest when it’s not really trying to be, especially because Apatow suffers from Cameron Crowe Disease, in which he thinks playing his favorite Meaningful Songs (as I might write) on the soundtrack is a sufficient substitute for creating real emotion. He sometimes pretends to be too cool in an effort to undermine his own mawkish tendencies, but you can see right through it: in one scene, a plaintive Adam Sandler, jamming with a few modestly known session musicians, sings “Real Love”; the bit is interrupted by a section of the cameo parade you mention—OK, Paul Reiser’s telling jokes over it (he looks so old, by the way!), but you’ve still got Adam Sandler singing “Real Love” for fuck’s sake. The scene ends with him staring out at a lake at dusk.

So, is Apatow really too dim to realize his worst tendencies are as bad as the crap he mocks? Is he in on the joke? (It really doesn’t seem like it.) Is the joke so meta you can’t even see it, but Apatow is really laughing at his audience for eating this stuff up? Or, what, Ben? What’s going on here?

My favorite of Funny People’s jokes about dumb Adam Sandler movies was the poster in one of Simmons’s mansion’s several dozen rooms for My Best Friend is a Robot, a comedy co-starring Owen Wilson as a cyborg. Of course, Simmons’s best friend for hire here, Rogen, basically behaves like a robot, proving once again that by and large, stand-up comedians can’t act. Enough with Funny People’s poor form, though, what is going on with its weird cross-class homosocial relationships?

There’s something of Charles Foster Kane in the isolated millionaire character Simmons, which would make Wright the not-so-talented wannabe he takes under his wing in a moment of fragile loneliness. Supposedly, Wright is a working-class comedian whose jokes about onanism and romantic frustration come from his economic impotence. Still, he lives in a luxury condo with his successful buddies who are virtually identical to him, except they don’t dress like 9th grade skaters. He’s also confident he’ll escape his economic rut, unlike the film’s lone African American character, played by RZA, who loves his job at the deli counter of Otto’s supermarket (“Otto’s my lotto!”). And, as in The Ugly Truth’s version of Sacramento, there are essentially no Latinos in Funny People’s LA, just successful and soon-to-be successful heterosexual white males. (Oh, and one rising Indian-American comedian, played by rising Indian-American comedian Aziz Ansari.) Does the fact that Wright ends up (spoiler alert!) back at the deli counter make up for Funny People’s preceding two hours of narcissistic entitlement?

And speaking of white men making billions, let’s talk about how News Corporation and Apple own this movie. In an early scene Wright types out his jokes on a MacBook, he then asks Simmons for an iPod when they clear out his garage, and later he makes Simmons an iTunes playlist with the intention of cheering him up, though it has the opposite effect. In the bloated film’s most ludicrously unnecessary scene, Simmons puts Wright through a trial by fire by throwing him on as an opener for a gig at a MySpace gala. They arrive in time to catch another cameo, a set by James Taylor (who, delightfully, chants Wright’s line “Fuck Facebook, in the face!”), then each tells jokes to Rupert Murdoch’s underlings against a gleaming backdrop of MySpace logos. Coca Cola also gets valuable screen time, and it eventually starts to feel like this joke about the film industry is also an ad for the other holdings of the evil super-companies that run the movies these days. Something tells me Apatow was in on that bad joke. Speaking of bad jokes, does Funny People’s one prominent female comedian (Plaza) — and a cameo by Sarah Silverman, who drunkenly uses her mouth to show Simmons what her vagina looks like — make up for its unfortunately typical phallocentric politics?

Back to your “9th grade skater” remark: did you notice how hard Funny People tries to establish its hipster bonafides? Hill wears a “Beirut” t-shirt; Rogen wears an Upright Citizens Brigade tee before changing into the “Scorsese” shirt from that directors/metal line the IFC Center promotes. Then Rogen invites Daisy to a Wilco show. Whoa! Apatow is, like, old but…he knows about Wilco? He’s pretty hip to what the young people are in to. (Why not, “hey, want to listen to the Beatles and Smiths on vinyl?” Oh wait, that’s (500) Days of Summer.)

Oh, and there was one Hispanic character: Simmons’ housekeeper, who keeps playing the cleaning lady—“I found jore pants”—even when George invites her to join his narrative when he tells her about his sickness. But that’s L.A., Ben—you’re either rich white or poor Mexican. We’ve talked about this before. But since we’re discussing minorities, let’s look at the film’s women, as you suggested. As for Daisy, she’s a remarkably undeveloped character. She and Ira even agree in one scene that they hardly know each other, that they’ve never had a conversation. So, we don’t know her either. (How can Rogen like her without ever having spoken to her? Cos she’s cute, bro.)

At one point, Simmons notes that he’s able to sleep with so many chicks because “girls like famous guys.” I thought that must be how Apatow gets all these women to be in his movies; you know, since he doesn’t have any solid roles for them. Well, except for one anyway.

Up until the last act, I was thinking the women in the movie were mostly sexpots and shallow mothers—even the love of George’s life, Laura (Leslie Mann), the one he let get away. Her most defining line was “how could you cheat on me? I was so hot.” Really? But then in that superlong third act (I don’t mean to belabor the structural issues, but geez louise!), she does become a real character, with hopes, fears, insecurities, turn-ons, etc.—even if, ultimately, her purpose is a conservative one: to affirm traditional marriage. Apatow deserves some credit for shaping at least one real role for a woman (even if it is for his wife to play); let’s not forget his colleagues are men like Todd Phillipps, in which women can be only walking tits or “whores”. (Though Manohla Dargis, my go-to authority on matters of feminine portrayal in contemporary Hollywood, disagrees: “She’s fine, but the gushy romance she brings with her is a drag. As is true of almost all the female characters in Mr. Apatow’s movies, Laura’s role is to help George grow up, to get out of both his own head and insular masculine world.”)

The group that should find this movie the most offensive is comedians—they all come off as selfish, mean, immature, neurotic misanthropists. When Simmons berates Ira in one scene, telling him he’s not funny, Wright responds sorely, “I don’t want to be funny.” It doesn’t sound like a simple line of dialogue: it sounds like the moral of the story. After all, as Apatow proves, the end of the rainbow for comedians is miserable superstardom, where all you make are shitty movies that stupid audiences gobble up. (Simmons ends the film confirming rumors he’s making a Re-Do sequel.) In that way, it’s remarkably autobiographical—apart from the fact that Apatow’s whole family is in it—even uber-meta: Apatow the superstar, making a bad movie about how superstars make bad movies.

(photo credit: Tracy Bennett, Copyright: © 2009 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.)

7 Comment

  • As if anticipating your point about Funny People’s obsessive checklist of hipster fashions, Vulture just posted a listicle of Seth Rogen’s T-shirts throughout his career:…

  • The Vulture list is actually pretty cool and fannish, but for the life of me I’ve never particularly understood why people call out and get annoyed at when people in movies have a band t-shirt or something. Do “real” people not wear that stuff? Should they be wearing more obscure shirts? Less? Is it only OK for movie characters to wear plain t-shirts? I’m wearing a band shirt right now. Am I trying too hard to establish my hipster bona fides? I feel like the central message when that sort of stuff is called out is “memo to movie: stop doing anything.”

    Also, I don’t see Apatow writing in a reference to Wilco as any different than him writing in a reference to the then-playing Spider-Man 3 in Knocked Up.

  • Some things are different when people do them in real life as opposed to when they do them in films; I might drink a Diet Coke at home, but if somebody does the same thing in a TV show, it’s a product placement. Because the choices directors etc. make have Meanings and Implications. Besides, this isn’t like one character wore one shirt; it was, like, multiple characters wearing different, calculatedly hip tees in every scene.

    As for you and your bona fides, Jesse, it depends what band your t-shirt is promoting. 🙂

    P.S. The Wilco thing just seemed corny, akin to Natalie Portman blowing Zach Braff’s mind with The Shins.

  • You know, I think I was aware that directors’ choices have meaning… might’ve heard that somewhere before. I guess I wasn’t aware of all of the rules involved about what makes some choices completely illegitimate and offensive — such as showing any name-brand soda being suspect if not outright shilling. How does this extend to grocery-store scenes, by the way? Are we to pity the short-sighted directors who don’t mock up 60 different fake boxes for the cereal aisle? Or do the Really Good directors know better than to have their characters buy into the cereal-industrial complex in the first place? (Just don’t show them in an organic food store, because that’s trying too hard.)

    You also seem to be saying that if one character wore the same t-shirt in every scene, or wore one t-shirt once, it would somehow be more believable? And less calculated? To me, that seems less and more, respectively.

    And: so it just seems corny for a twentysomething character in a movie to like Wilco (or the Shins, for that matter)? Presumably because those bands are too easy to like, “dad rock” or whatever pejorative is being used at the moment. So who’s trying to establish hipster bona fides again? 😉

    I guess I’m just saying, to me it seems pretty difficult to call out these choices as bad without sounding like the subtext is: I am so much hipper than this shamless poseur of a director.

  • We win! Funny People managed to top the box office with a relatively measly $23 mil, which was Adam Sandler’s worst opening in years, and the lowest opening weekend of the summer. (Virtual high five.)…

  • The stat about it being Sandler’s worst opening in years is widely quoted and mostly misleading (one story even said “in five years” which is blatantly false). Reign Over Me opened to $7 mil and change in 2007; Spanglish made $8.8 mil in 2004. Basically, the $23 million is on the low side for a broad Sandler comedy and on the high side for a more rare Sandler-fronted drama and about in the middle for an Apatow-and-company movie. Sort of fitting, as the movie is, wait for it, a comedy-drama made by Apatow.

    Nor is it the lowest opening weekend of the summer, or even the lowest opening weekend of the summer for a comedy; it’s the lowest-grossing “#1” opening of the summer.

    But if the selective use of box office figures is supposed to confirm or deny anything, hey, can’t wait for the spirited defense of I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry or The Longest Yard ’05.

  • Sorry, Jesse, I didn’t mean to sound glib. Anyway, if you’re trying to get me to admit that I think I’m cooler than Apatow, I will do so–freely! But (one of) my problem(s) with Funny People isn’t that Apatow’s not cool enough for me; it’s that he was trying really hard to be cool. And, everybody knows, that’s about the most uncool thing you can do.