In Theaters: Funny People
That there is an evolution to be traced in Judd Apatow's directorial career is impressive in itself, given that we're only now on his third feature. His ambitions to deal with more serious material, develop his characters, and add montages set to earnest songs to his repertoire are duly noted, but the most convincing evolution is evinced in Apatow's gradual shedding of all conceptual pretense to give us a full frontal look at his world, and how relationships work within it.
With Funny People, the story of a famous comic who gets terminally ill, hires a hungry, would-be protégé as his assistant, and then embarks on a romantic do-over boondoggle when he gets a second chance at life, Apatow has fully realized his perspective on the world, and in doing so presents a striking case against just how constrained the view from up (and down) there is.
Funny People announces itself as a personal story in the film's first, in-your-face frames: Apatow uses his own footage of a young Adam Sandler making prank phone calls as Janeane Garafolo stifles her laughter in the background. Sandler, however and supposedly, is not Sandler, he is a stand-up turned movie star named George Simmons, whom we see roaming the grounds of his big, hollow fiefdom in the next scenes: raw talent captured and tamed by the trappings of fame.
Indeed, George seems to have been poisoned by his isolation: in the next scene he's diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that his doctor warns he will probably not survive. He comes home and has a hella awkward phone conversation with old flame Laura (Leslie Mann), telling her, once again, how sorry he is, before rolling into a comedy club to torpedo the joint with some helplessly morbid material and then get skewered by the no-name punk (played by Seth Rogen) who has the misfortune of following him. These opening scenes are as economical as the film gets: the next two hours and ten minutes plumb this set-up in alternately engaging, moving, erratic, and finally itchy, farcical detail.
Much of the crew is back, with Jonah Hill, Eric Bana and Jason Schwartzman joining Rogen, Mann, and satellite Apatow crony Sandler. Flickers of the Apatow sensibility, a large portion of which is defined by a preoccupation with the dominant role that humor plays in developing male friendships, were established in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and then magnified ten-fold in Knocked Up. In Funny People it is manifest: the men are all finally professional comedians. The jig is up and the stakes are raised between Ira and his working comic roommates, who must be funny not just to relate to one another, gain each other's respect, compete for status, and measure the weight of their character, but to make a living. Their humor is literally their worth. In Apatow's previous films, funny people meant good people: "What do you think of him," Katherine Heigl anxiously asks Leslie Mann in Knocked Up as they watched Seth Rogen's bounding doofus run around a backyard. "He's funny, right?" Later on, when the women suspect Mann's husband of cheating, Rogen is appalled: "He wouldn't do that -- he's hilarious!"
The terms of the Apatow universe are not only further intensified in Funny People, they reach their logical end: Apatow's and America's values are shown to dovetail in the outsize success of George Simmons, whose baby-voiced movies are referred to throughout the film. We value humor -- all right, a certain strain of humor -- the way other countries value, say, intellect, or breeding, or child-bearing hips. When George brings Ira into his life to write jokes, nurse him, and talk him to sleep at night, it is Ira's comic instincts, which got him in the door for obvious reasons, that also allow for a more profound bond to grow between the two. Apatow is at his best in letting the exchanges between the men rest for several cumulative, complicated beats longer than he has before, and in discrete moments traverses the spectrum of hilarity and profundity with a grace he doesn't achieve with the film as a whole. When Ira, earnest and well-meaning, cajoles George into listening to the iTunes playlist he has made for him, the scene moves from light and silly -- and really funny -- directly into something darker and sadder, when Ira's song choice inadvertently hits some long-ago sweet spot.
It's as completely human as his writing and direction -- so unexpectedly powerful when working together and not against each other -- have ever been. Credit also goes to Sandler's revelatory performance; he plays the ruthlessly flat affect of the entitled so well it bespeaks a kind of weary authenticity of its own, which purity is complemented whenever his natural charisma is inspired by something other than a paycheck. A scene with Mann moves as gracefully in the opposite direction of the iTunes exchange: the couple pours out a lifetime of stupid regret and niggling doubt in a soft, weepy tumble that segues into George's reacquaintance with Laura's long-fingered hands, cradled in his, and laughter over how they always did make his dick look small. Trust me, it's lovely.
But ah, the dicks. The dicks, the dicks, the dicks. It's like Apatow can't help one upping himself, and his characters display that same phallic compulsivity; in Funny People I'd wager more dick jokes per square inch of film than has ever been set to reel. Even James Taylor, in a very clever cameo, is not entirely spared. Sarah Silverman tries to keep up with a sort of complementary genitalia rap, but it just plays sour and gross. This is not a surprise: Women, more explicitly than ever in this ur-Apatow universe, are not funny people. And by its own laws that means they are not really in the game -- and not just the comedy game, but the respect game, the relatability game, the game of being a worthwhile individual.
Laura is mostly absent from the first half of the film, but appears in the saggy, post-remission section as a kind of flittery, fickle ideal of -- what? Beauty, as she says herself: "How could you cheat on me? I was so hot." George's fondest memory of her seems to be the topography of her ass in a particular pair of '90's mom jeans. He actually seems to get on better with her husband who, after years of hating George from afar, warms to him instantly because -- unlike his films -- he's actually funny. Ira has a brief, inexplicable infatuation with a neighboring comic -- played by Aubrey Plaza as a sort of uptight, proto-Daria type, without the edge or timing. Of course she sleeps with Ira's sitcom-star roommate, and is ruined, tainted -- like meat. Ira tells her how he really sees her, in one of the most honest moments of the movie: she's a starfucker, she's disgusting. What he should have said is that, even worse than that: She's not funny.
It's a man's world, to be sure, and one that in this case is not just half-baked (and yet over-long) but botches half of the ingredients; it would almost be better if he left women out entirely. On his own terms, however, Apatow gets at something critical in Funny People, making explicit the dynamics of the male bond -- and the inherence of humor to its strength -- that he has explored more subtextually in other films. George is resolved as both mentor and cautionary example to Ira, and after rebuffing Ira's request for feedback and help with his act, drawing a professional line against the young man so eager for a deeper friendship, the stack of jokes George ultimately proffers is framed as pretty much the apex of not just platonic but human connection.
I can appreciate that, just as I do the laughs I had throughout, much as I recognize the beauty of John Updike's prose line by line--and yet with both artists I don't respect myself when it's over. Just another monster of mass cultural influence who has nothing to say about me, much less to me. I'm hoping now that Apatow has fully defined the boundaries and laws of this one particular corner of the universe, he might be forced to move on, and in doing so make a film I can walk away from without feeling like a chump.