Thursday, August 6, 2009

Funny People: Apatow’s 40-Year-Old Comedian

Ambitious as it is, the more you know about Judd Apatow’s latest excursion - Funny People, about a 40-year-old comedian (played by Adam Sandler) who’s diagnosed with cancer, and the twenty-something comedian wannabe (played by Seth Rogan) who tries to cheer him up - well, the less exceptional it seems.

For instance, I didn’t know, going into the movie, that Sandler was Apatow’s college roommate. I didn’t know which of these guys, Sandler’s George Simmons - the successful, cynical elder comedian, or Seth Rogan‘s younger and inherently funnier Ira Wright, that Apatow was intending as his stand-in (probably both). I also didn’t know how much of the story was based on Apatow’s real life.

Even though there's much excellent material here, it's just hard to take away from it the kind of sharp mental picture a movie like this needs; the screenplay is written with the Apatow breezy style but much more of a ‘slice-of-life” plot than we’ve seen in his earlier films. This is a comedian attempting to broaden his wings into more serious matters of life, death and everything in between. It’s not unexpected that comparisons would be made to Woody Allen’s transformation from his early career. Because Apatow, a talented comedic writer/director in his own right, has succeeded, in the most part, in tackling these more serious issues, even if he hasn‘t delivered a supremely crafted movie experience, I think the Allen comparisons are apt.

George Simmons (the name sounds more like a lead guitarist for a rock band than a Jewish comedian born in the early 60‘s) lives in a celebrity world of sea-side mansions, instant pussy, and well-paid servants that a) pretty much seems to be what we would expect and b) probably pretty much, I imagine, reflects the real life of Adam Sandler. When he receives his diagnosis of terminal cancer, Simmons finds that the only person around him capable of exhibiting any real emotion is Ira, Rogan’s eager puppy of a student comedian. Simmons takes Ira under his wing, introducing him to a corporate gig at MySpace and showing him the ropes at various stand-up and theater venues, while Rogan attempts to keep Sandler‘s character from sinking into a morose depression.

Those expecting the film to be a light-hearted romp a la 40-Year-Old Virgin are likely to be disappointed. As are those who think Adam Sandler is inherently un-funny. Rogan and his pals (played by the other two new younger statesmen of Jewish comedy, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman) get the good jokes and the easy Apatow banter. Sandler, meanwhile, plays his irascible character from Punch Drunk Love, not being funny so much as darkly nuanced: his character is meant to be a fame-seeking narcissist, beaten as a child, who now makes big-budget Hollywood fluff and engages in comedy in order to get attention and keep darker demons at bay. The operational insight in the film is that this, essentially, is the personality type of all comedians (though one must wonder what Sandler’s parents - who give a walk-on as Simmon’s parents - think of this premise). Various other real-life comedians make walk-ons in their failed attempts to “be George’s friend,” further demonstration of the thesis that comedians use humor to keep real emotion at bay. Many of these appearances work, some don’t (the best is an interaction between Emenem and Ray Romano, culminating in Rogan’s observation about Romano that “I thought everybody loved you.”)

All this seems to be building to a breezy but slyly-crafted Allen-esque triumph of writing and direction when Apatow carelessly runs in to the accident of his third act. Here it seems real-life may have overshadowed the writer‘s craft, as Apatow introduces George‘s ex, Laura (played with perfect pitch by Leslie Mann), an ex-actress now married to a supposedly overbearing Aussi played w/ irritating gusto by Eric Bana (Apatow’s daughters play Laura’s daughters in the film). George must woo Laura away from the alpha-Aussi’s muscles, with Rogan looking on providing comedic relief. What results is mostly sit-com shtick, and though the act has the movie’s best moment - Sandler, Rogan, and Mann watching Laura’s daughter and realizing that Sandler’s character is simply incapable of relating to other people - even this moment is over directed and lacks the subtly that would have made it the core insight the film wanted.

It’s unfortunate that Sandler’s George, cynical and gifted as he is, can’t really find any truly comic moments in the film. Whether this is due to the inherent sentimentality of Apatow’s premise or whether the Sandler critics are right, it’s hard to tell. (I think Sandler is an oddly effective dramatic actor, but didn’t find Zohan funny, either). In the end, it’s clear then that this is more like an Oxygen channel version of a bromance, and not so much a “ha ha” comedy. As a bromance, it tackles subjects that I wish more movies would tackle: Geroge’s character arc is driven by serious issues about loneliness, talent, and family that go more deeply to the heart of the nature of friendship between men than most movies care to. Even though the relationship with George’s ex is badly handled, the one between George and Ira evolves well, ending with George’s gesture to Ira at the end to finally offer him the career help he needs. But since Ira is basically a younger version of George, even this nice final moment is a narcissistic reflection as well.

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