Friday, August 7, 2009

Funny People

Thanks to folk like Perez Hilton and even websites like Twitter, even celebrities can be stereotyped nowadays. You watch a Youtube clip of an interview with the latest "it" person and you'll sometimes see how conceited they can be. Lately I've seen this with comedians (mostly ones not even worthy of being called B-listers) where they can be so damn opinionated and full of themselves that they come across like the biggest dicks ever. One could surmise that that if celebrities/comedians behave like dicks most of the time then they have no friends, will be somewhat happy on the outside, and be nothing but bitter and cold on the inside. Whether it is because of this stereotype or just the general sense that someone so forward with the public must be darker than we think, we've come to expect a certain complexity from characters like this when they are put on film (see Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy or Dustin Hoffman in Bob Fosse's Lenny or Roy Scheider in Fosse's semi-autobiographical All That Jazz). Writer/director Judd Apatow tries to introduce us to one of these types of characters through George Simmons (Adam Sandler) in his third directorial effort- Funny People.

The story follows comedy movie-star Simmons as he learns that he is about to die from an incurable disease so in his last months on Earth he decides to return to doing stand-up (something that we see that he did when he was younger and that brought him much joy). At the same time, wannabe comedian Ira Wright (a newly trimmed down Seth Rogen) is working hard at... just trying to succeed in general. He lives with a superior joke-writer (Jonah Hill) and a crappy sitcom star (Jason Schwartzman), pines after a female fellow comedian (Aubrey Plaza), and is even ignored by his co-workers (RZA, yes as in the Wu-Tang Clan badass). George sees Ira perform and then asks for Ira to come write jokes for him because he either sees some promise in the guy or he just wants to keep him around as a personal assistant who he can tells his secrets to while remaining emotionally unattached (it really isn't clear at first). When George suddenly finds out that there is a possible chance to beat the disease, he drives to San Francisco to do something he always wanted to do, win back his ex-fiancee (Leslie Mann) from her seemingly cheating husband (Eric Bana).

A problem I've had with several movies lately comes from a lack of character development and Funny People does suffer from that in a more unique way when compared to recent films like Public Enemies and Shrink. It's not I feel there is no character development, I just expect more. The characters don't exactly need a backstory but there seems to be a lack of explaining the motivation behind why George, and even Ira and the supporting cast, act the way they do. Is it the comedy that justifies why George acts like a jerk or is there something else about him? We get vague hints that he is used to a life of fame but like I just said, the hints are too vague to draw a supported conclusion about why we never go deeper into George's psyche. Since Apatow himself comes from the world of comedians, one would think that he would be able to work further into explaining the complex emotion but perhaps it is because his first two features dealt with pop-culture references and the anxiety faced by boys, men, or maybe both. And it's not like the film is over-indulgent or self-conscious, it just seems that Apatow was very careful with how he paced each moment and placed each line of dialogue to the point where we only see the surface of how George Simmons has responded to death. The story is set up for Simmons to learn a lesson or two about cheating death and yet he doesn't learn shit. Not that I have a problem with that personally but the story nearly dictated that Simmons would finally see the error of his ways.

Now despite my issues with the content of the story, that is not to say that the cast didn't perform well with what was available to them (and I don't mean that as an underhanded statement). The movie is after all, surprisingly fifty percent comedy and fifty percent drama (a surprise for audience members who only know about the film from its marketing campaign). For anyone who doubts Sandler's acting I'd like to remind them of Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, and (as much as it pains me to admit it) James L. Brooks' Spanglish. He can act. We normally see him play that childish-man hybrid that I mentioned above but he still knows how to bring an audience likability to him through his performance. If there is any doubt about Rogen, well since he was the writer behind Superbad and Pineapple Express, we know that there is a high-minded individual to be found and all he had to do was apply the same level of understanding of a character to how he performs. The rest of the supporting cast performances are all well timed and handled with the right amount of care (with kudos to Bana, Schwartzman, and Plaza to playing their roles to a tee).

Once again, I don't mean to sound like I disliked Funny People, but I just expected more. Apatow is capable of mastering the same balance of characterization and laughs as James L. Brooks was (and I truly mean that as the highest of all possible compliments I can think of at the moment). So like I said, it is not a completely failed effort thanks to those performances and the humor (and Saving Private Ryan's cinematographer Janusz Kasminski giving everything a well deserved flair) but perhaps with a second viewing I'll be able to stop looking to put this movie on a pedestal and be able to appreciate some form of complexity that Apatow has laced into the plot.

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