Friday, August 14, 2009

Nostalgia and How to Lighten up about It: Funny People

The opening of Judd Apatow’s new comedy Funny People is, in relation to what follows, the most moving part of any Apatow movie. It consists of home video footage of Adam Sandler making prank calls while his roommates participate and try to stifle laughter. That the footage is probably authentic-- it may be real off-the-cuff footage of Sandler joking around before his true days of fame-- highlights both the sentimentality and nostalgia of this film.

            We are led in to the rest of the film by way of Sandler’s character, a forty-something standup comic George Simmons, being informed that he has an aggressive form of Leukemia and that his prospects of survival are grim. We see him looking through pictures of an old girlfriend (Leslie Mann) and calling her to tell her he is ‘sorry about everything,’ stopping short of saying a word about his illness. This is a man who has stopped short of everything in life barring a good joke; he did not get married, he did not keep in touch with his family, and he likes being around people only if they serve his needs. He stopped short of having friends. 

There are already several firsts for Apatow and crew less than a half hour in to this too-long film: for once, Apatow is establishing a character and a mood without resorting to any blaring quirks or profiling. Simmons is simply another beloved celebrity who lives in a beautiful house in an arrogant, bitter world of his own invention. Subsequently, this is also the first time Adam Sandler has given a good performance. Under his freakish man-child façade there has always been a layer of pathology and despair, and Sandler has built a character with these qualities while nonetheless being witty and effortlessly hilarious. Humphrey Bogart would have played a character like George Simmons had he been wise to the world of standup comedy.

            Ira Wright, too, is a character fashioned from despair. Seth Rogen plays him as an eager and neurotic jewish standup comic, albeit one who is realizing with dismay that has a long way to go before he gets solid laughs. When George Simmons sees him at a standup venue he decides he likes his jokes enough to hire him to write jokes and generally take care of him for $15,000 a week. Ira is flattered, although we know that Simmons really just needs someone to project his loneliness on to. Eventually, though, even we are confounded; Simmons confides to Ira before anybody else that he is dying of cancer and comes to appreciate Ira’s devotion, as well as his genuine talent for writing jokes. Ira comes to need Simmons, too; for one, to escape from his self-centered roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman) and for two, to learn how to pick up girls.

            All the films Apatow has produced or directed hinge on one character who is a good, earnest person and everybody around him acting lowlier than they should. This, too, is given a slight change-up in Funny People; there are two earnest characters, one who is simply the type of guy we would not think of as such if we didn’t get to know him. Also, all characters do at least one selfish thing—Ira neglects to tell one roommate that Simmons also wanted to hire him—and at least one decent thing— a snotty female acquaintance (Aubrey Plaza) admits that she was wrong to sleep with Ira’s roommate days before they were supposed to go on a date.

            Apatow’s movies are the also the most modern movies being made today. They are packed with sounds of cell-phones interrupting conversations and meaningless apologies. They are leaden with images of corporate logos casually sticking around everywhere and of guys watching T.V or smoking pot or drinking to stave off boredom and awkwardness. They are also modern in the sense that they want to appeal to a populist sense of humor while also dealing with real issues facing people today. It is here where certain intentions of Funny People come in to friction with each other; Apatow wants to make the epitome of movies that work within the Hollywood system and are also ‘smart’; movies that are both down-to-earth and feature one outrageous joke after another. But because of this approach we are treated to scenes in which George, after finding that he has gone in to remission from cancer, has a party featuring cameos from every celebrity imaginable, or later scenes of marital strain between George’s old girlfriend, Laura (Leslie Mann) and her husband (Eric Bana) in which the kids remain unaffected by their parents plight to a cynical degree. The elaborate and convulsive plot does not help to reign in the obscene jokes or the nudging and winking for the sake of some more plausibility. Those who would say that these movies are not supposed to be plausible, only funny, are wrong in this case; Funny People strives to be a deeply humanistic, believable movie, but there are too many populist obligations that get in the way. There has to be more celebrities, more profanely shouted sex jokes and a last minute reconciliation. It’s the rules.

            But Funny People still tries more new things than any previous Apatow film has done, or even than most mainstream comedies do. All of his movies purport to be character driven, but movies like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Superbad are really impulse-driven. Funny People is genuinely a movie about funny and complicated people. Apatow and his actors could still learn a few things about performance-driven humor, from Mike Leigh, for example. But his new film is daring in its own way and if that confuses his regular audience then that might just confirm how compassionate a storyteller he really is.