Sunday, August 23, 2009

Funny People: Dick Jokes With Some Depth

This review was originally written for publication in the Evnoy, and due to that paper's absence of a policy on its writers having blogs, you're seeing it here. If you're dying to see it in print, you have two options: 1) come to the Hunter College campus in New York City some time after the first week of September and pick up a copy out of a lovely, hidden-from-view, falling apart display box; and, 2) send me some money (lots of it) and maybe I'll send you a copy of the free college paper I write for. Either way, it's a bargain.

Funny People: Dick Jokes With Some Depth

As the first decade of the 21st Century enters its twilight months, Judd Apatow is emerging as an iconic comedic director for a generation. Well, Like a rosy-faced 15-year-old boy copping to the ultimate semi-pubescent sin, I'll admit it: before seeing his latest offering, Funny People, I was an Apatow Virgin.

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a rich, famous stand-up-comic-turned-movie-star who finds out he has a rare form of leukemia and will probably die, so he goes on a quest to find what he loves most in life. Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is a struggling stand-up comic with a penchant for lewd humor whose act impresses Simmons so much that he takes the young buck under his wing. The two end up navigating some rather heavy emotional terrain as a partners-in-slime, telling gross-out jokes through thick and thin.

Funny People is a bit like an inversion of the typical dude-humor comedy we're getting used to dropping our twelve bucks on. Dick jokes? Yeah, there's no shortage of 'em. But this movie brings something to the table that few comedies try to these days: nuance.

Contemporary comedies often look something like this: you have a funny or ridiculous basis for a story that's held together by an ill-wrought dramatic premise, and the real point isn't whatever it is that the characters are striving to accomplish in the story, nor the ideas or themes the film calls to mind. It's the various gags, jokes, cringe-inducing awkward moments, or encounters with scantily clad young women that litter the path to the closing credits (think of a movie like The Hangover and you know what I mean).

Funny People--dare I say it--is more sophisticated than that, even as it relies disproportionately on reminders of the quirks of our own anatomies for laughs--and even, speaking of body parts, if the fits of laughter it sends us into aren't so potent they could count as the week's ab workout. You're more likely to chuckle than you are to wheeze and convulse.

But that's okay. Because Funny People has some things to say about friendship, love, fame and happiness that resonate louder than the peppering of (rather good, if often pretty tasteless) interludes of standup by Sandler and Rogen. There is some complexity to the relationship between George and Ira. One is rich and famous, but jaded and cynical and leads a life drenched in wistful regret. The other is star-struck and naïve, and wants what his new friend has, even as he begins to unpeel the layers of rot that should tell him to run the other way. Their relationship is fraught with reminders of what fame does to a person, and of what real friends are--and aren't.

When Ira makes the ailing George an iPod playlist with a bunch of cheesy songs and then we hear that he's included Warren Zevon's “Keep me in Your Heart,” (a devastating song written by a man who knew he was dying of cancer), it's actually a touching moment. And the fact that he put Bill Medley's 80's cornball love ballad “Time of my Life” on the playlist isn't any less funny coming in a scene with some emotional gravity. It's one of the things that's making me begin to appreciate the Apatow touch, because scenes like this one seamlessly traverse so much of our humanity without losing their comedic zing.

Adam Sandler once again shows us that there's more to him than met our eyes during his much-celebrated early 90's Saturday Night Live run. It's not that he lights up the screen as a washed-up comedian staring death in the face. But you do get the feeling—and maybe this is because there's surely some Sandler in the Simmons character—that the melancholy, aging face that a few times manages to burst through the funny-man facade, is that of a complete human being. That said, the parts of our old friend Adam that are both most memorable and most satisfying, come to us when he is precisely that funny man he's shown us he knows how not to be. In particular, he gives us a sequence of old-granny-voice prank calls that were easily the closest thing in the movie to having me on the floor, and were, by any measure, 100% Sandler.

One major disappointment of Funny People is the way it descends into a third act whirlpool of plot-twisting contrivance. I'd bet money that some frantic producer got a hold of the final revision of the script and concluded that it needed another 30 minutes of length and the full development and resolution of what should have been a minor subplot. If you see it—which I still recommend—this'll stick out like a sore thumb.

In this movie, the specter of death isn't funny, per se. It's as tragic as it is in the saddest melodrama, or in the real world, for that matter. But the transcendent power of humor is revealed as a tool to help us pull through (and even as a mask to hide behind in ways we shouldn't). It's ambiguous. It's not neat or clean. And I know we're talking about Hollywood here, but still, that's the way real life is: messy.

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