Monday, August 17, 2009

Funny People (2009)

With Funny People, his third film as director, Judd Apatow, the most prolific peddler of the modern R-rated comedy, has brought more ambition and less restraint, creating the type of generously textured, yet also turbulently messy, film that is precisely the type of film that deserves to be debated. It vibrates with a sense of vitality that at times makes up for the flaws. This isn’t exactly a masterpiece – I don’t like it quite enough to make that claim – but it’s the kind of interestingly tangled work – at once confidently controlled and dangerously personal – that a filmmaker can sometimes create that will inspire passionate, and justified, feelings both against and in defense. I will defend the film, for despite the genital-centered jokes that appear with inordinate frequency, as is the Apatow standard, this is a subtle and adult work, delving headfirst into tricky themes and remaining mostly unscathed.

The film stars Adam Sandler, in an oddly self-reflexive role, as successful comedian George Simmons, who has long since graduated from stand-up to land in the big-bucks studio comedies of precisely the kind in which Sandler has been known to appear. He’s the classic case of a man with everything he ever wanted, yet nothing that truly matters. As the film opens, we follow Simmons as he walks through a public space, stopping to take pictures or sign autographs for adoring fans. We end up with him in an examining room where he is told that he has a rare form of leukemia and only an eight-percent chance of surviving. We then follow him back into the world fully expecting, having been conditioned by countless disease-of-the-week dramas, for Simmons to grow and change, learning life lessons while battling the disease. This doesn’t happen, or at least, not exactly.

This is where we meet Ira Wright, a struggling stand-up comedian played by Seth Rogen. He lives with roommates, also comedians, one (Jonah Hill) his colleague in the amateur stand-up world, the other (Jason Schwartzman) relishing his glimmer of success with a mildly successful, if mostly derided, NBC sitcom. It is at the improv where George sees Ira’s act and later calls him and offers him a job as a joke writer. The film then follows George and Ira through an odd relationship, positioned somewhere between personal and professional, with interesting emotional pushes and pulls, naturally arising conflicts with uneasy resolutions. Apatow is unafraid to follow his characters down tangents in plot while in pursuit of emotional truth. In fact, the whole third act of the film could be considered a tangent, dealing with characters who, by that point, have been unseen (Eric Bana) or half-glimpsed (Apatow’s loveably cute daughters) and foregrounding a romance subplot involving Leslie Mann that is arguably unnecessary, but I went with it.

The movie is lumpy and misshapen, I won’t argue that point, but it rarely feels like it steps wrong. Even distracting cameos from real-world celebrities are easily ignored in the flow of the feelings the film evokes, in the rich texture of supporting roles like Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari, and RZA who, though given few scenes, create fully realized characters that weave in to the greater tapestry. The film is not about plot. Instead, this is a film about character and emotion, tone and mood. Apatow, working with the great cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, has crafted a movie with understated beauty in the images and rhythm. How often can that be said about a big studio summer comedy? This isn’t just a comedy, but it’s also unfair to label it a dramedy, as some are quick to do. This is a drama, pure and simple. The characters happen to be quick-witted individuals who crack jokes as a default when dealing with any situation. These are funny people, no doubt about it, but they are living the same dramatic lives as any other set of people. Since Apatow started as a stand-up before becoming the success that he is now, it seems that Apatow sees himself in his two leads: Ira is who he was; George is who he all too easily could have become.

This is a film, in ways both subtle and sweet, about lives in transition. The arcs the characters travel never feel predetermined, they never creak with convention. Everyone knows by now that comedians are rarely the happiest members of humanity, and Apatow wisely avoids making this the theme of his film. Nor does he merely use the central question of disease and mortality to show us once again how confronting the abyss of death can cause radical change within an individual. With Funny People, Apatow isn’t content to restate. He’s interested in exploring the trickier, subtler terrain where people change in small, not big, ways. In doing so, though this is far from a perfect film, it casts a spell that only messy, tricky, passionately personal films can.

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