Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Dangerous Ground: Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino simultaneously sends-up and celebrates cinema's corrupt nationalist history in his latest film, the revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds. This contradictory dichotomy in many ways sums up this most confounding film, one that I found exhilarating and exasperating in nearly equal measure; it's simultaneously the director's most sophisticated movie and his most adolescent, at once nothing like what you would expect from Tarantino and exactly what you would expect from him. He satisfies the blood lust of both himself and his audience, all the while turning an extremely critical eye towards the power of illusion in creating these visceral reactions towards violence, and the feelings of jingoism that screen iconography can exploit.

Yet there are many moments where it feels like he is simply making the movie for the adolescent inside of him, attempting to vicariously live in the cinematic wonderland of war movies that he did as a child, and these mostly isolated moments of shallow wish-fulfillment serve as a bizarre counterpoint to the far more numerous moments that indicate a mature artist. The weakest moments of the film are the ones that detail the exploits of the titular band of American soldiers, led by a charismatic (and psychotic) Aldo Raine, played in broad comic strokes by Brad Pitt; and it's in these sequences that Tarantino's "violence is the most fun you can have at the movies!" philosophy wore me down. Revenge has been a vital part of his movies since the Bruce Willis episode of Pulp Fiction, but here it feels like he's using the tailor made emotions that the Nazi uniform brings with it to justify his penchant for violence on the screen. Though this isn't the cartoony violence of the first Kill Bill, the tone of the violence strikes me as decidedly more 'realistic' in this one; there are many instances where the violence is chilling, as it should be (the most chilling one involving no blood at all), but there are also moments where I feel that the violence is supposed to be 'fun' (such as during the aforementioned second chapter, or when Pitt's Aldo Raine sticks his finger in a woman's bullet-wound to get information). I've honestly never been bothered by the violence in Tarantino's films before, but something about the brutality of the head-scalpings (which leave nothing to the imagination), and the glee with which the Nazi's are brutally murdered rubbed me the wrong way.

Far more interesting to me is the personal revenge tale of Shosanna Dreyfus (an enchanting Mélanie Laurent); who, after witnessing the murder of her family in the opening scene, gets a unique opportunity to bring down the Nazi regime when the movie theater she runs is going to be used for a Gala Nazi Premiere. Her story is interwoven with that of the titular basterds, and the two come together in the end for the big finale (set in, appropriately, a movie theater), but the contrast of the two narratives struck me as particularly sharp; whereas the sequence that details the band-of-outsiders is exactly the kind of uber-violent revenge fantasy that the movie was marketed as (it is admittedly a small portion of the overall movie), the tale of Shosanna is poignant and, in the end, the most singularly moving thing Tarantino has ever done. This is the first time I've ever felt he painted an honest and accurate portrait of a female; instead of being in stately awe of them, treating them as Goddesses, this is a multi-faceted, nuanced portrayal of a woman, and Mélanie Laurent's wonderful performance tows the line expertly between vulnerability and empowerment. Those who decry Tarantino's films for lack of 'character development' would do well to take a look at Shosanna's character arc in this film. Part of me wishes she had been the core focus of the movie, because to me she was the film's heart and soul, but Tarantino's vision is much too ambitious to be confined to a single character as it was in the Kill Bill movies.

It's worth noting that the crude nationalism of the film's second chapter bothered me in the same way the misogyny of Death Proof's first act bothered me, but I think he does unique things in both those films that shifts the context of what I had falsely perceived as misogyny in his previous film, and nationalism in this one. We were all hearing for years and years about Tarantino's revisionist-history war epic, and the early plot synopsis I read (this is going back a few years) detailed that it would be Jewish soldiers taking revenge on Nazi's; while there is something amusing about this concept on the surface, there's also something dubious about turning Jews into perpetrators and Nazi's into victims, something that goes far deeper than issues of moral relativism. On paper, this could have been an exploitation of people's personal biases to justify extreme acts of violence, but Tarantino does something unexpected and, later in the film puts the brutal, borderline sadistic second chapter titled "Inglourious Basterds" into a unique context with war movie history. The audience I saw the film with the second time laughed and cheered during a sequence when "The Bear Jew" (Eli Roth, who is not nearly as bad in this as he's made out to be) beats a Nazi soldier to death for not revealing the locations of his fellow soldiers. I truthfully found this incredibly off-putting, as I didn't honestly find anything funny about a sequence that details a clubbing at the hands of a sociopath (Tarantino's Producer Lawrence Bender called the movie a "fucking Jewish wet dream"), but the somewhat troubling response of my audience was mirrored during the climactic premiere of the movie-within-a-movie Nation's Pride, about a German soldier who kills some 300 enemy infantry while stationed in a bell tower in Italy. Of course, this propaganda film is nothing but an exploitation film with political import, and as the in-film audience applauded the killing of soldier's actions in the fictitious Nation's Pride, I couldn't help think that Tarantino was, in some way, critiquing the way some audiences take a giddy, perverse joy in violence, especially when that violence appeals to our innate sense of xenophobia. Of course, many people (his fans included), refuse to accept that Tarantino is capable of such insight, especially because these insights come from within a genre film.

And it strikes me that many detractors were just waiting to rip Tarantino a new one for his revisionist history, deciding their stance based on the marketing ("Jews fight back!") as opposed to what is actually presented on the screen. Many of the negative reviews of Tarantino's latest simply cite what's being referred to as the 'Jewish Revenge Porn' element (leading one to think that they are reviewing the teaser trailer from last year, as opposed to the actual 2 and a half hour movie), ignoring the essence of the film in favor of axe-grinding polemics. Tarantino's movies are never explicitly about what they present on the surface --- be it gangsters or samurais or soldiers --- but rather they are about cinema itself, and this is his most sophisticated rumination on the power of images; rather than stuffing this film to the brim with references to other movies, cinema is an ingrained part of the film's story --- both as an art form and as a physical object (the combustibility of celluloid is a vital element of Shosanna's revenge). This is the first time Tarantino has displayed a deft knowledge of film history instead of trivia, and the way he puts films into a social context --- acknowledging that they can be as powerful weapons in a war as bullets and bombs --- is the first time he's used his encyclopedic knowledge of film to an ends outside of creating an inclusive film universe (one important character is an ex-film critic turned soldier, which gives Tarantino a venue with which to comment on how the German film industry changed under Goebbels). I know a lot of Tarantino's detractors simply won't accept such depth from him, but the centrality of cinema to Inglourous Basterds is an inspired and extremely perceptive storytelling device; it's a wonderful metaphor that celebrates all movies, not just the genres that Tarantino has displayed a special affinity for.

If this is the first time he's put his considerable knowledge to good use, it's also the first time he's ever really encapsulated his idols, while still developing one of the most idiosyncratic directorial voices in modern movies. He spent the entirety of Volume 2 trying to approximate Segio Leone's distinct visual style (which isn't to say I don't think he was directing from his own sensibility as well), and I don't think he quite succeeded --- though he almost did. The opening chapter of Inglourious Basterds, fittingly called "Once Upon a Time... In Nazi Occupied France" (which would have been a much better title for the film, I think), is pure Leone; Tarantino films the gorgeous French countryside the way Leone filmed his barren landscapes, and the recontextualizing of locales is perfect for Tarantino's aesthetic, as the use of color has always been a central element of his compositions (since he tends to be thought of as more of as a writer and good director of actors than anything, his considerable visual panache is rarely discussed). This opening sequence kicks the story into gear by introducing us to Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz, who is justifiably getting praised to the heavens for his turn here), nicknamed "The Jew Hunter", as he is going into the French countryside looking for any potentially hiding Jews. This opening sequence is some of Tarantino's very best work --- wrought with tension, it aligns our sympathies with the French farmer as Landa plays him like a fiddle, knowing exactly which buttons to press and how to manipulate until he gives him the information he wants: where the Jews are hiding. In a very powerful moment, you can see the heartbreak and devastation in the man's eyes as he announces the location where his friends are hiding. Landa, as portrayed by Waltz, is not your typical raging socio-path Nazi (it's just so easy, not to mention convenient, to blame the Holocaust on a couple of bad apples); rather, he is a cunning and artful manipulator, one who takes pride in his job not because he believes in the final solution, but because he's an opportunist.

This opening sequence illustrates how the film will function; each 'chapter' is a self-contained set piece, working both as an individual unit and as part of a much richer whole. The most daring of these is a nearly half-hour long sequence set in a bar, with German actress Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) meeting the German-speaking members of the titular band of soldiers in a pub filled with Nazi's to plot the bombing of the Nation's Pride premiere. This is the mirror of the suspense-filled opening, which similarly drew out the tension with long stretches of dialogue. Some have complained that this sequence stops the movie dead in its tracks, but I think it displays sheer movie-making gusto; Tarantino is audacious enough a film maker to pull in the reigns and allow time for the situation to develop, to the point where we're intimately familiar with not only every detail of the room, but with all of the people who occupy it as well (Tarantino goes to great pains, for instance, to establish that one Nazi soldier is out with his comrades celebrating after the birth of his son), so that when things finally do explode in a shoot-out there is a significant emotional involvement on the part of the audience as well. This sequence is sheer masterful storytelling, proving that Tarantino the goofy, nutty post-modernist is something of a classicist at heart. Though my favorite chapter is aptly titled "Revenge of the Giant Face", where all the loose, seemingly unrelated narrative threads come together in a glorious, exciting, audaciously conceived finale.

But there is something in the film's final sequence that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Hans Landa has surrendered to the United States, but as one final gesture Aldo the Apache carves the Nazi swastika into his forehead, because he can't abide the thought of Landa one day taking off his uniform and living a normal life. In the film's final shot, Pitt's Aldo Raine proclaims directly that this particular carving "just may be my masterpiece". In interviews, Tarantino has always struck me as somewhat arrogant, but in his movies that confidence translates into remarkably assured, supremely confident and idiosyncratic direction; but this narcissistic final shot reminds me of the Tarantino I see on television, as opposed to at the movies. I left the theater with a bad taste in my mouth, so much so that afterward I wasn't sure if I even saw the movie I thought I saw, and seeing it a second time the whole thing went down much smoother; I admired what I admired all the more, while also having a more firm grasp with the few things that bother me about the movie.

But the more the movie fades into hindsight, the more my misgivings with it disappear into the background, to the point that the point where they feel almost trivial. At the end of the day, this represents ultimate Tarantino; virtuoso, expertly crafted entertainment that is rooted in, but not defined by, genre tropes, and a great soundtrack (particular favorites would be the opening theme "The Green Leaves of Summer" from The Alamo, the Morricone, and a gloriously anachronistic David Bowie). That I'm not quite enamored with it (but damn close) simply reflects things that bother me personally about the handling of this particular subject, and don't necessarily speak to the director's intent. All of Tarantino's movies have been about celebrating the guilty pleasures that the movies have to offer, while at the same time supplying the lowbrow with his own unique stamp. But Inglourious Basterds and Death Proof represent the first of Tarantino's more critical takes on genre, where he transcends the more disreputable aspects of his favored genres by expanding them in a cheeky, delightfully postmodern way. It is perhaps best to think of Inglourious Basterds as a unique summation of the history of Nazi's on film --- from Reinfenstal to Spielberg to everything in between.

Miyazaki Artistry, Disney Product

It's a testament to the film making craft of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli that even The Walt Disney Corporation's patented whitewashing (or should that be white supremacy?) can't rob Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea of its artistry --- only its culture. The circumcision of the title from the elegant, alluring Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea to the decidedly more marketable Ponyo is only part of Disney's pandering to Western xenophobia; as per their tradition with Western Studio Ghibli releases, all the original voices are dubbed with marketable 'stars', a move that draws more attention to itself than anything. Instead of the voices fitting their characters as they do in the Japanese versions, they just find 'name' people to voice the roles for Western audiences, depriving these animations of their spirit and their ethnicity. This is as transparent move to appease jingoism as I've ever seen, not to mention it encourages illiteracy amongst children and adults (illiteracy in third-world nations is the only reason dubbing became a practice in the first place, then laziness made sure it was here to stay). The more voracious the marketing campaign (it's opening in 800 whole theaters. That's, what, a third of what G-Force and G.I. Joe got?), the more these distinctly Hollywood personalities stick out from the film itself. Still, it's amazing that in an era where animation is dominated by Pixar and Dreamworks banality that something as benign and visually imaginative as Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea even made it to American shores in the first place. That we must tolerate DisneyCo tarting up what they view as mere product is the sad price we must pay.

Miyazaki's films bring an Eastern folk-element to traditional coming of age stories, and this is probably why his films have struck as much of a chord overseas as they have in Japan. In spite of the fact that Miyazaki perceptively documents Japanese culture and social issues --- bourgeois attitudes, war, and environmentalism in his latest three films --- he is never patronizing or moralistic, mercifully avoiding the Pixar trap. Ponyo concerns a young anthropomorphic goldfish-girl's (it's a lot less contrived than I make it sound) quest to break out of her fish form and become a human; touches of Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid abound, but Miyazaki avoids directly reminding us of any thematic similarities by fleshing out the story with his own unique sensibility. Ponyo, even in its more low-key, quiet moments, is packed with Miyazaki's typically eye popping visual palette; every frame feels like the illustrations in a storybook brought to life, fleshed out with Miyazaki's breathtaking sense of color and wondrous, seemingly limitless visual imagination.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea may be more simplistic and directed at children than some of Miyazaki's other, more universal works, but it's refreshing seeing a movie that actually pays homage to the depth of childhood experience. Unlike Pixar, who has taken to portraying their core demographic as fat, lazy, and ignorant, Miyazaki has the utmost respect for children; he portrays them as pure, wise, and intelligent. When Ponyo first ventures to the shore and is captured by a young five year old boy Sosuke, he immediately takes to her, as we took took to animals as children. The central conceit of a goldfish struggling to become human is a brilliant metaphor for what we projected onto our pets as children; we thought of them not as creatures inferior to us, but as companions and friends that were our responsibility. There is a scene early on where Sosuke is afraid he's lost Ponyo forever --- without even thinking about what could happen to him, he rushes out into the water trying to find his fish. As he struggles, hopelessly, to find his lost pet, I felt the same sadness and frustration that the little boy on screen felt; anyone who has ever lost an animal has probably felt the same kind of outpouring of emotion, the feeling both of missing the pet and of feeling like you let the animal down. It's because Miyazaki has such an intimate connection to childhood that he's able to detail what it feels like to be one so effectively.

Miyazaki also understands the way adults don't take the concerns of children seriously; in Spirited Away, all the problems arise from the fact that the main character's parents don't listen to their child. In Ponyo, the titular character wants to escape from her undersea life and join the ranks of humanity, but her father won't hear of it --- partially because he doesn't like people very much (and with all the pollution of his undersea home, who can blame him?), but mostly because he doesn't want to lose his daughter. While it would have been easy to cast Ponyo's father into a villain role Miyazaki refuses to deny him his humanity; he doesn't have 'heroes' and 'villains' in the traditional sense, as such obvious storytelling cliches are beneath his sensibility.

Ponyo is one of few new releases to be daring enough to find joy in life, and to allow that sense of joy and wonder to be its guiding force. I have minor quibbles with it (Westernization aside), namely in the way the plot is resolved at the end, and the general cutesy nature of it all, but I can look passed them because Ponyo is a feast for the eyes and for the soul. I can also let the how child-friendly it all is slide because children deserve a movie that respects them instead of condescending towards them --- and children (bright children, anyway) respond to this element of Miyazaki's films. Their emotional simplicity, their honest reflections of human experience, and humanity are essential values that have long since disappeared from Disney's work. When so many animated movies have the cold feel of being made on a computer (including, in many cases, a story that feels as mechanical as the animation), it's refreshing to see a work of animation that has a distinctly human touch; there is almost an impressionist quality to the drawings, which may not flesh out every solitary detail but are still visually ravishing. Ponyo proves that Miyazaki is one of the few popular artists saving animation from banality and formula, and he deserves nothing but support and respect for doing so.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Armond

"I love the idea of Armond White, but I hate the fact of Armond White."

-Bill R.

The New York Press' infamous contrarian has been spurring up a lot of net discourse lately, more than usual, no doubt in large part stemming from Roger Ebert's kinda-sorta defense of him and then non-defense of him posted at Ebert's blog near the end of last week. It's shocking to me that Roger Ebert, who is known to read into all corners of the internet, has managed to avoid Armond White for so long; White has been writing criticism for a quarter of a century, and back in 2008 he had some pretty unkind words for the man in his gibberish manifesto, "What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Movies". But apparently Ebert stumbled onto him because of the latest Rotten Tomaotes shitstorm that White's review of District 9 caused (because he dare make its Tomatometer score anything less than a perfect 100, because that's the kind of mass-consensus sheep haven the site really is). It was interesting reading Roger Ebert's perspective on White, especially coming to him as an outsider, appreciating his forcefulness and outspokenness, then being turned off by his balls-out insanity and poisonous vitriol; but at the same time part of me wishes he hadn't posted that particular entry to his blog. White says what he says in the manner he says it strictly for the sake of attention and provocation, solely for the purpose of moving issues of the trashy news weekly he writes for, and the attention he receives and the reactions he incites only validate his notion that he's the lone defender of truth fighting the corrupt 'hipster' amateur critics and the even more corrupt 'corporate' professionals. The attention he receives from people with infinitely more eloquence, dignity, and grace only validates his moralistic superiority and ideological bullying. It fuels the fire instead of dousing it.

Not to mention I feel Ebert uses the weakest of criticisms to prove the point that White is a 'troll'; it's not the constant attacking of his peers, it's not the garbled prose, it's not the holier-than-thou contrarianism, it's because he thought Transformers 2 was a good movie while Synecdoche, N.Y. was not, because he said Death Race was a good movie while There Will Be Blood is not. This is a questionable mindset; it implies that the opinion itself is the reason for White's lack of worth as a critic, not his extremely questionable critical methods and highly obvious agenda. It's an eloquent version of the same Rotten Tomatoes fanboy mindset that he was originally decrying: White, by disagreeing with the consensus, is not useful as a critic. This is a mentality that misses the forest for the trees, as anyone who turns to criticism for validation of one's own opinion has many outlets for that sort of thing. Those of us who like to be challenged by critics have fewer outlets to turn, especially in the print-press, and this is where, theoretically, White's value lay. But he makes it difficult for those of us who try to defend the occasional relevance of his ideas by sensationalizing his writing to the point of absurdity. He's the Bill O'Reilly of film criticism; ranting about how wrong everyone but him is and decrying the corrupt mainstream media, while really subservient to the agenda of the trashy news outlet he works for. That he writes for a weekly that claims to fill a 'niche' market does not make his pandering anymore acceptable than it would if he was writing for the Times, the Post, or any of the other mainstream outlets he spends so much time tearing down. It may even make it worse, because White is disingenuous about who he really works for.

And this is what we don't talk about when we talk about Armond White. By focusing on the semantics of his opinion --- by making it out like he's a madman, a lunatic, a contrarian-for-contrarian's sake --- the real issue with respect to White's criticism gets distorted. We're talking about a critic who was, at a time, one of the most sharp cultural observers writing in the Metropolitan area --- film criticism doesn't even quite encapsulate what White was attempting to do. I think Steven Boone put it best in a piece for The House Next Door "Ten Armond White Quotes That Shook My World" (as well articulated a defense of the man as I have ever seen) when he said "White is out to change the world"; that notion, in and of itself, isn't particularly earth-shattering though. What separates White is that he honestly thinks he can. But White is now a servant to the agenda of his media outlet (which isn't to say I don't think he believes what he writes), dumbing down and tarting up his writing for the sake of getting the New York Press off stands and to get the website's hit-counter up; the advertising revenue, after all, is the only thing that keeps that garbage afloat. 'Sell-out' isn't quite the word I'd use to describe White, because 'sell-out', to me, doesn't quite encapsulate the idea of a critic who has extremely unique and occasionally relevant ideas, who has the potential to be among the most idiosyncratic voices in criticism, but squanders that potential to the agenda of a corporation who is only interested in making him a commodity. And not even a big corporation, at that --- White is a small-time crook.

Which is especially disappointing, as there are many pieces of White's writing, even for the Press, that are of a great deal of importance to me --- his appreciation of Spielberg (especially his reviews of The Color Purple and A.I.), his defense of De Palma as more than merely a Hitchcock plagiarist (especially in his essay collected in his book The Resistance: "Brian De Palma, Political Film Maker"), his eloquent appreciation of Michael Jackson's power as a pop-star and artist, both during Jackson's life and after his death --- these pieces helped me look at these respective artists in a new, eye-opening light. He once said of Spike Lee that he was 'born to make' Do the Right Thing; on that note I think White was put on this earth to wax poetic about Spielberg, De Palma, and Jackson. But what separates his Press writing from his City Sun and Film Comment days is that even in his stronger Press pieces (by which I mean cohesive and lacking in vitriol), he can't help but throw in asides about how much better his taste is than everyone else's, how all the media is corrupt (with the notable exception, of course, of his employers), and baseless comparisons to other works (i.e., in a mostly exemplary review of Borzage's No Greater Glory from around last year, when he randomly name-drops The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and There Will Be Blood, or in his piece after Jackson's death called "In MJ's shadow", where he states that "People who don’t appreciate “Ben” don’t really appreciate pop culture and remain clueless about MJ"); it's this type of holier-than-thou rhetoric that turns even the best of White's work into a highfalutin fraud, a sheep in wolf's clothing. That he has the potential to be so much better than he is --- that he was once a unique critic who put films into a valuable cultural, racial, and political context --- makes him worse than the hacks he spews so much venom at. They were born sell-out hacks, White turned into one.

So this is my plea to all those who help put White onto the pedestal that he rests on today --- by treating him like a cartoonish super-villain instead of a venomous, shameless self-promoter, we give him the attention he and his employers so desperately crave; indeed, the attention that they depend on. The New York Press' livelihood relies on the controversy that White stirs up --- what other publication puts their film critic on the cover with such regularity? He is their main draw, and they'll even occasionally host polls with questions like "What's Armond White's wackiest review?" --- they treat him as a commodity, as if saying 'Look at our nutty critic, he hates everything that people like!'. That he allows himself to be marketed that way, that he plays into that blatant pandering with his increasingly sensationalistic and mean-spirited writing , exposes him as the fraudulent bully that he is. There are many writers out there with more relevant ideas and more eloquent prose, and who don't feel the need to attack anyone and everyone who doesn't agree with them. Let's stop giving Armond White the power that he and his employers so clearly thrive on, and in doing so, turning him into something he isn't. There are more relevant issues worth discussing.

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 clichéd, 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.