Thursday, August 6, 2009
The Apatow name has evolved into one of the most trusted names in the film industry ever since the success of 2005's "The 40-Year Old Virgin." Since then, Judd Apatow, of the Apatow name, has ushered in a plethora of modern day classics like "Superbad," "Pineapple Express," and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" to name a few. But very few of them have actually come under the helm of Apatow himself. Aside from directing "Virgin," Apatow has only since directed "Knocked Up," so it's an especially exciting occasion that we get a film direct from the man himself. However, his latest feature, "Funny People," (now playing in San Diego theaters) takes a departure from his traditional "frat pack" comedy stylings in favor of a slightly more serious approach, resulting in a film that seems to mix the Apatow sensibility with that of James L. Brooks or Alexander Payne. And while I admire such a daring career move from Apatow, I must say that the result doesn't quite hit the mark.
The film focuses on two particular "funny people," George Simmons (played by Adam Sandler), a former stand-up comic who traded in his roots to become an A-list film star headlining movies like "Murman" and "Re-do" (a movie about a man who must become a baby so he can learn what it means to be a man), and Ira Weiner (Seth Rogen), a young, struggling stand-up comedian who's constantly beaten down by his two other funnier, and more successful, roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman). However, fate intervenes when these two cross paths at a stand-up show in LA, where Ira is forced to follow the legend that is Simmons. However, Simmons doesn't deliver a killer set, instead his seems to be more focused on his depression and the lament of his wasted life. So, to follow it up, Ira ends up cracking some jokes at George's expense. George ends up catching Ira's act, and, despite being a little hurt, actually thinks Ira has some talent and eventually asks Ira to write some jokes for him. What follows is the progression of the relationship between these two: George, the rude, insensitive celebrity who has everything but nothing, and as it turns out, is one foot in the grave already due to a blood disease he's diagnosed with; Ira, on the other hand, plays the role of the sensitive, introverted young man who's lack of self-confidence leads him to fall prey to the incredibly aggressive world of comedy in LA.
As George's disease progresses, Ira convinces him that he should tell more people about what's happening with him, forcing him to connect lost ties with friends, relatives, and, most significantly, Laura (Leslie Mann), the girl who he was once engaged to until he cheated on her. However, a little while later, George is surprised to learn that (and you shouldn't be surprised by this if you saw the trailer for this film) he may have beaten the disease. This new lease on life causes George to rethink everything he's done and ultimately makes him determined to rekindle his relationship with Laura, who's experiencing some personal problems herself with her Aussie husband (Eric Bana), who's almost always away on business and who she suspects is cheating on her. And it's right about here that the film really started losing me. The ultimate problem with this film is that it's waaaay too long (150 minutes to be exact), and on top of that the film suffers from being too unnecessarily dramatic and, ultimately, very contrived. It seems that Apatow, determined to make his more "serious" film, has given himself the duty of laying on the drama as thickly as possible rather than just let it come naturally. Personal lives get entangled, relationships get tense, all for the sake of making a film that lacks any actual humanity as it gradually tries to shove some down the throats of these characters and the audience. In fact, I'd go as far as to say this film has the least humanity of any of Apatow's films in that I cared so much more for the protagonists in those films than I did in these. And I understand in life not everything's so black and white, but we never once get to see a truly intimate moment with Simmons other than him freaking out about his sickness or feeling down on himself, but there's very little to convince us that this guy's more than an obnoxious, egotistical jerk.
All that being said I actually liked most of the performances in this film, even if I wasn't so crazy with the way their characters were handled in the script. I thought Sandler really put a lot into this performance, and there was some really terrific work done by Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Torsten Voges (who plays the "scary-voice" German doctor), and Eric Bana who's finally given the chance to explore his comedic side with this film, and all I can say is I hope we see more of it in the future. The real stand-out performance comes from Seth Rogen, who actually turns in his typical curly-haired "in-your-face" slacker suit to fill the shoes of the awkward, unconfident Ira (a role that echoes a lot of Apatow himself, who used to room with Sandler in the 90's); this performance in the end asks a lot of Rogen, forcing him to truly stretch his acting muscle in a way I never knew or thought he could. The one performance I felt didn't quite hold up was Leslie Mann's; I really liked her in most everything else she does, but she just doesn't quite strike me as right for this role and brings nothing but one-dimensionality to what was already a thinly written character. And to top it off, from the moment they come to Laura's house, both the pace and overall quality of the film take a nose dive as Apatow struggles to justify a whole lot of nothing, forcing the audience to sit through a mildly entertaining, but excruciatingly convoluted final act.
In the end, I still found myself liking "Funny People" (rated R for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality). In addition to its wealth of impressive performances, the movie also manages to be, well, funny! Some of the best scenes are when the characters are doing stand-up or when the actors are just going at it, cracking as many jokes as they can. And as for the "non-funny" material, well, I don't want to leave you with the impression that it all misses the mark. The film brings some fascinating insights into the world of stand-up comedy which you can tell Apatow and his cast really have a great passion for. There are also some very well-handled scenes involving Simmons' character and the dark side of being the person everybody stares at when they enter the room, and how ironically isolating that can make one feel. I applaud the effort of this movie, but I really feel some intense editing, as well as some slight story re-writes, could have served this film greatly. While I consider this a good film, I can't shake the incredible sense of disappointment that comes with seeing Apatow's latest not live up to the greatness I'm sure it could have achieved.
--Michael Shymon just graduated from The Bishop's School. He has had an avid passion for film since he was about 5. He enjoys acting, writing, watching movies, as well as making his own films. He will be attending NYU Tisch Film School next year and hopes that all this movie watching will one day pay off.