Sunday, May 15, 2011
If It Bends: Reconsidering Funny People
That's where Funny People fell. At least for me.
Released in the not distant past of the summer of 2009 — the "third film from Judd Apatow" as it was billed — Funny People came out with a tidal wave of hype behind it, only to be shrugged off by critics and audiences alike. At the time, I remember seeing Funny People and thinking it was a shaggy dog misfire, a film that would never need to be revisited much ever again. (Later, it would become one of those films that sat on my DVR for nearly two months before being deleted without watching.) Looking back at what I've written about Funny People on this blog, it went from a moderate curiosity to a punchline. I didn't respect the film, didn't care about trying it out for a second time, and devolved to mockery. (That is also how the Internet works: you might as well kill something if you aren't that high on it.)
This isn't a prologue to some major revelation, but just a little background for the following: having re-watched Funny People this weekend, I can attest that while it isn't a great movie, it is certainly pretty good; this is a film that should definitely be revisited more over time. Apatow strove for something different, and more often than not, he hits the mark.
The problem, of course, is that the mark for Funny People changes at the halfway point. This isn't a film with three acts, but one with four: The first two being about George Simmons (Adam Sandler), his battle with a blood disease, and Ira (Seth Rogen), the assistant he takes under his wing. Then George gets better, and realizes his life his still empty. End of movie? Nope: George goes to get Laura (Leslie Mann) — the love of his life — back, meets her husband (Eric Bana) and kids, and turns back into the jerk he was at the beginning of the film. Then he realizes what he did wrong, and reconnects with Ira, whom he fired as both assistant and friend.
That's a lot of movie. It's like the run-on sentences of movies. Honestly, Funny People would have worked better as a television series — a six-episode affair on HBO with Apatow executive producing. As it stands, the film is a two-and-a-half hour ramble; a comedy about stand-up comedy that is only occasionally funny, populated by characters than fall on the dark side of the grayscale. No one — not Ira, George, Laura, Clarke or Ira's friends (Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman and Aubrey Plaza) — is presented in a good light. They're all "funny people" and yet the joke of the film is that these are these people are kinda mean-spirited. They are the definition of selfish: lying to get what they want, when they want it. Only at the very end are we given a glimpse of hope that maybe these messed up characters have learned something. Maybe.
This is heady stuff for the guy who directed The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, two films that have fairly sunny dispositions. Virgin is a heartbreaking joy with an earned happy ending that hasn't been rivaled in a comedy in the last decade; Knocked Up doesn't earn its happy ending, but it still feels good — you'll leave that film wanting to hang out with Jason Segel, Jonah Hill, Martin Starr and Seth Rogen, while simultaneously raising a baby.
Contrast that with Funny People, a movie where you'll never want to hang out with any of the characters, and it's no wonder Apatow took heat for this one. I have called Funny People Apatow's version of The Wrestler, and I think that holds up. After all, in that film, Randy "The Ram" Robinson doesn't change — he is who is at both the start and end, even after some supposed epiphanies — and you could argue the same thing about George Simmons. Sure, he comes to Ira at the end and offers him some jokes, but that doesn't mean he isn't still the same self-loathing jerk, cloistered off from any human connections; he's on his way to becoming a human being, but judging from the previous two-and-a-half hours, it's not likely to be a standing he comes to very quickly.
Sandler is a real wizard in Funny People, a performance that is leaps and bounds ahead of the work he did in Punch-Drunk Love. Put it this way: Had Bill Murray starred in Funny People, there would have been talk of an Oscar nomination. Sandler is that good in this role, simultaneously heartbreaking, infuriating and unlikeable. It's a really naked portrayal of fame, and one that you don't often see onscreen.
Of course, being George Simmons was probably easy for Sandler — this is a man who makes a living making terrible movies. No matter how big his salaries, there has to be a part of Sandler that is just a little upset by the fact that he's "Adam Sandler." The man is smart; he would have to know when something isn't funny. Watching Sandler-as-Simmons is like watching Chevy Chase-as-Pierce on Community; you can't separate the real-life person from the performance, and it makes things all the more interesting to watch. You get the feeling that Sandler could have only given this performance for Apatow; the pair go back a long way, and it's likely that coming from anyone else, Funny People would have seemed like a slap in the face for Sandler. Coming from a best friend, it seems almost cathartic.
If Apatow has one big problem in Funny People — besides the crazy act structure — it's Rogen. I remember thinking in 2009 that he was miscast, and re-watching the film again, it seems even more striking. His -aww shucks-kick-the-dirt performance is uncomfortable in the worst way possible. You never believe Rogen in the role, and it seems like a mistake to place so much of the heavy dramatic conflict upon his shoulders. Ira is a selfish weakling who the audience roots for despite itself, and Rogen isn't charming enough to make that work. The question then becomes who could have played Ira, and the only person I could think of is Michael Cera. Not only does Cera have the capability to detach himself from the moment (something that Ira definitely needed), but he's also kind of a dick. As written, Ira needed to be played more like a dick; Rogen is just too nice and soft for this stuff, and it almost sinks the film.
Which is another way of saying that Funny People is an interesting almost-success. Or a successful failure. It's the type of film more successful filmmakers should attempt; a risk to their honed brand that deepens their oeuvre. Apatow swung for the fences with Funny People. He didn't hit a home run, but at least he gave it a ride. In fantasy baseball terms, Funny People is a post-hype sleeper. Hopefully, this is one that isn't permanently lost in the gaping maw of the Internet.