Sunday, August 2, 2009

Terminal Adolescence

Not even the great Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski can dignify Judd Apatow's latest ode to perpetual adolescence, Funny People; in spite of the fact that Apatow tries, sometimes embarrassingly hard, to make his first 'serious' movie, Funny People still displays the same adolescent misogyny, crude frat boy humor, and bland TV aesthetic that has defined his cinematic career thus far. That it has 'serious' pretensions only distracts from --- but does not subvert --- this issue, and the fact that the movie attempts to break itself away from its predecessors by tacking on a contrived (and wholly incidental) leukemia subplot only highlights how juvenile and incompetently made his movies really are. I would imagine that Apatow thinks Kaminski's gorgeous high contrast and grainy cinematography, coupled with the film's dramatic import, marks his arrival in the Los Angeles community that he spends a great majority of the movie sucking up to (more sycophantic B-Grade guest star cameos than a lousy Apatow television production), but he is starting to expose himself as the Emperor with no clothes. Funny People is something of a bi-polar movie; it tries so hard to intertwine so many narrative threads and emotions, and fails so miserably at virtually every single one of them, that it's not so much a movie as a cinematic identity crisis.

The biggest failings of the movie are the wasted performances of its two male leads, Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen. Sandler is so often written off as talentless, but he has displayed real depth as an actor in several film roles this decade (he may have made a more effective transition from comedy to drama than the much-touted Tom Hanks did), and his performance in Funny People as the sad, lonely misanthrope George Simmons could have been among the best of his career, if he had been working with a real director. Sandler may have something of a rigid star persona, but in the past decade (since a game-changing performance in P.T. Anderson's underrated Punch-Drunk Love) he has shown that he can pitch that core character at varied frequencies, subtly tweaking and honing that persona depending on the material. This is what made his performance in Punch-Drunk Love a revelation; suddenly Sandler shifted the context of his traditional repressed, socially defective man-child, and the result stands as one of the bravest turns by a star in modern movies. And Seth Rogen's gifts as an actor have always been beyond Apatow --- who else could have brought warmth and energy to the stereotypical entitled stoner slacker at the heart of Knocked Up? Not to mention the screenplay he and Evan Goldberg wrote for Superbad stands as the best Apatow production to date; in no small part because it acknowledges that these films relegate themselves to a High School boys' understanding of the world. One day, I am certain, Rogen will find material that does justice to his talents; until then one can do nothing but feel sorry for him as he shuffles through Apatow product, dignifying the material more than it has any right to be.

Rogen plays Ira Wright (formerly "Weiner", pronounced "whiner", but spelled like the dong adjective, which I suppose is Apatow's idea of a clever pun), an aspiring comic living the kind of life not usually afforded to a struggling artist --- he may have to sleep on the pull-out sofa, but he still lives in the kind of Los Angelian yuppie fantasy land apartment that you might see on the likes of Entourage. I guess that would be Judd Apatow's idea of being destitute; this is beyond lacking class consciousness, Apatow is in a class coma. Ira lives with two fellow show-biz wannabes (played by Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill), and they have a petty, wholly underdeveloped roommate-rivalry; there are no insights into male fraternity and territoriality, it's all narcissistic petulance. When Ira is performing at a comedy club one night, Sandler's George Simmons stops in after his prognosis and performs a manic-depressive set. It's one of the film's only dramatically affecting scenes, because Sandler perfectly channels aggression into melancholy and hopelessness into rage --- it's the ability to pitch so many complicated emotions at once that makes Sandler remarkable. Unfortunately, Apatow isn't ballsy enough a film maker to follow through on his dramatic convictions, and thus the leukemia subplot drifts so far into the background that you completely forget it's there. Instead of being a tragic figure, a sad clown in the flesh, Apatow just paints a further portrait of vain self-absorption; it's hard to feel bad for the poor little rich man, with his mansions, fast cars, and garage full of stuff that was given to him (there is a particularly embarrassing scene where Sandler is yelling about how his television service doesn't work the way it should). Sandler's George Simmons eventually hires Ira to write jokes for him and be his assistant (read: bitch), and the May/December bromance is so hammy and clich├ęd, full of such typical romantic comedy niceties, that one almost expects the film to end with an embrace and whispers of "I love you, man" between Sandler and Rogen.

Of course, such sentimentality would be beneath Apatow, who is much too smarmy to embrace such blatant conventions. But Apatow is embracing the very conventions he is pretending to facetiously send-up; and this makes all the ham-fisted attempts at drama in Funny People wholly disingenuous. Apatow's ruminations on pop culture reflect the same kind of attitude he takes towards melodrama --- he pretends to be above the pop culture he ridicules ("I just saw the new Harry Potter movie, they should start calling him Harold Potter. Seriously, he's older than my dad!", "Are you mad that you died at the end of Die Hard?", "You make me feel like Danny DeVito", and so on), but he's more hung up on pop-culture trivialities than Family Guy. This elitism may pretend to be superior to pop-culture, but it's really a kind of pop-culture ignorance; Apatow confines himself to a certain set of universal pop-culture references, gratifying his infantile audiences' limited understanding of the world, all the while feigning moral superiority to the empty allusions that define his shallow brand of humor.

Amazingly enough, Apatow's blatant critic pandering seems to have pulled the wool over far too many people's eyes, accepting his half-assed stabs at seriousness as the mark of an artist; but tacked on dramatic contrivances permeate his career almost as much as dick jokes do. In The 40 Year Old Virgin, his crass raunchiness was given a pass because the movie had 'heart' --- which of course translates to a simplistic and patronizing view of its main character, played by Steve Carrell. In Knocked Up, he half-heartedly tackled an 'adult' issue, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the result was wide-spread raves. It's shameful that so many reviewers are appeased by such blatant critic-baiting, as Apatow's attempts at profundity are really the most transparent of bids for critical acceptance. While the dramatic devices he's used in the past have been insipid, the subplot of Sandler's character having a rare form of leukemia in Funny People is so trivializing that it's downright offensive; it's such a non-issue in the narrative that it's obvious that Apatow is just going through the motions, begging us to take him seriously. And what better way to validate one's worth as a film maker than to tackle a trite life or death scenario? This central conceit could be interesting, but Apatow has no insight into why we channel tragedy into comedy --- partly because he doesn't understand tragedy, but mostly because he doesn't understand comedy.

Funny People isn't even sound on a structural level; at 146 minutes, the movie meanders from contrivance to contrivance, from one mechanical narrative thread to another. Apatow has brought over every trick from the TV playbook, with the exception of economy of storytelling. When Rogen and Sandler go up to Northern California to visit Sandler's token one-that-got-away (Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann), now married to a statue-esque Australian (Eric Bana), the movie comes to a virtual halt; it meanders, with no real point or direction, seemingly endlessly. These sequences show the downside of Apatow's improvisational style; scenes drift off pointlessly, the shots feel randomally amalgamated together, and many jokes simply fall flat. As expected, Leslie Mann plays the token Apatow floozy --- confused, immoral, obsessed with appearance --- in other words, as in all his other pictures, his portrait of womankind exposes a misogynist. One early scene between Mann and Sandler has her character ask "How could you cheat on me? I was so hot." not "How could you cheat on me? I loved you so much.", her reasoning behind it being wrong is that she was too sexy to cheat on, a notion that speaks to how Apatow evaluates relationships and, more broadly, human beings.

Ultimately, Apatow isn't enough of a multi-faceted artist to balance the many layers of comedy and drama that this movie would have needed to be effective. Rather, the movie just displays the same crass toilet humor (the film seems to adopt a real stand-up's credo: when all else fails, whip out the dick jokes) interspersed with ineffective, Hallmark card sentimentality. Funny People goes in the exact opposite direction it means to; the dramatic scenes are funny, the attempts at comedy are sad. Perhaps the worst thing about Funny People is that it deliberately misrepresents itself as another Apatow side splitting gross-out fest, and then stifles the audience with poorly developed drama (the audience I saw it with laughed, but it wasn't the house-rocking I remember for The 40 Year Old Virgin and Superbad). Apatow may be throwing out 'deeper' themes in this movie, but attempts at depth does not equal actual depth; instead of expanding his range as an artist, Funny People actually brings Apatow's adolescent core even more clearly into focus.


Adam Zanzie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Homiebrain said...

I'm more or less indifferent when it comes to Apatow, but this was the first film that actually piqued my curiosity because the viral marketing campaign for Raaaaaaaandy was fucking hilarious, and because it was a chance to see Sandler flex his dramatic muscle again. I'm sort of disappointed that it wasn't nearly as good as I had hoped, but definitely not surprised in the least.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, first of all I actually like some Peter Weir, especially his Australian stuff. And I may not care for Lubitsch, but I certainly wouldn't lump him in with Michael Moore.

Brian, you've been raving about that viral marketing so much I may have to check it out. Though, as you can imagine, I'm kind of cool on the movie now! And yeah, seeing Sandler actually act is nice (have you seen Reign Over Me? It's a clumsy movie, but Sandler is tremendous), but the leukemia subplot is dropped about 45 minutes into it virtually altogether. So then it's just Sandler acting like another rich asshole, and it's hard to feel sorry for him.

Sam Juliano said...

Wow Ryan, I see you reside in Fort Lee, New Jersey! I'm from Fairview, only 8 minutes south of you, and I've lived there my entire life! (I'm 54 now, married with five young kids) Small world.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yeah, that is something of a coincidence. Glenn Kenny apparently lived the first few years of his life a few blocks away from where I am currently situated. Though, in fairness, it's not that unusual for film writer's to spring up in the Metropolitan area! Lots of us are around here.

I used to work in the Fairview/Ridgefield/North Bergen area, 'round last summer, being the wetback for a textile company.

Thanks for stopping by.

bill r. said...

What in the world is there to hate about Peter Weir?? With only two exceptions (one due to it being terrible, the other due to my not having seen it) all of his movies range from flawed-but-interesting to outright masterpieces.

Come on now, Ryan! You're just trying to be Armond White!

Sam Juliano said...

Anybody who lives that close by (and is a fine writer and blogger as well) should rightfully be on our blogroll. I will add you now.

Ryan Kelly said...

Much obliged, Sr. Juliano, for both the link and the praise.

Sam Juliano said...

And it does warm my heart to read this near-pan of FUNNY PEOPLE, a film I still have not seen, despite the generally favorable reviews. I am no fan of Apatow's previous work, as I have written about at my site. When I do finally get around to it I have no doubt I will concur on th efailure of the two leads, as well as a wasted contribution by the great Janusz Kaminski.

Exceptional review, made more so by my anticipated agreement! LOL!

Eric R. said...

Ryan, I've already read a few things on your blog and I think you are a gifted writer and are thoughtful when it comes to films.

However, I found myself disagreeing with almost everything you said about Funny People. Apatow is a talented director and yes Funny People was a deep and serious film that tells a story about missed opportunities and second chances. Strangely I didn't feel it was about how funny the jokes were but instead it focused on the difficults of working in the stand-up comedian's world and how difficult life can become when you are uncertain about how much time you have left.

I originally wanted to say a lot more but since this is my first actual post on this blog I thought that this should be about enough for now.

Ryan Kelly said...

Eric, thank you for the praise, and I hope we can just agree to disagree on this one. =)

I just felt like Apatow couldn't decide what he wanted the film to be -- a drama or another of his raunchy comedies, and so he kind of goes back and forth repeatedly. Do you think the stand-up portions, at the very least, weren't supposed to be funny? I thought a lot of those jokes simply feel flat. I felt the same way about the drama; it reaches but I just never felt it got there.

Thanks for reading, and you don't need to be shy about leaving a lengthy comment if you're so inclined. I'm always happy to engage --- it's why I started the blog in the first place.

Anonymous said...

great read. I would love to follow you on twitter.

Ryan Kelly said...

I've been considering doing a Twitter strictly for the blog, but would need a spike in content as well as readership to justify doing that, because between e-mails, blogging, FaceBook, and forums, I have enough social networking in my life... but it is a consideration nonetheless. Thank you for the suggestion.