Features and Columns · Movies

Culture Warrior: Not-so-Funny People

By  · Published on August 3rd, 2009

Despite the rather obvious title of this post, I have to admit that I did actually enjoy Judd Apatow’s third venture as writer/director. I think the filmmaker was probably a bit overambitious with what he was trying to accomplish here, and certainly extended himself beyond his reach, ultimately not fully succeeding with his initial intent. But I believe that what he was attempting to achieve is noble and refreshing for mainstream film comedy, and his efforts succeed just enough to make Funny People a pretty-good-but-not-great movie. The title of this post thus does not refer to some sort of immense dissatisfaction with the film, but instead to Apatow’s ballsy management of expectations here, surprising us with a movie about funny people that is very often deliberately unfunny. One thing’s for sure, Apatow for better or worse is pursuing more the avenue of artistic storytelling in the vein of the auteur (with arguable degrees of success here) in an attempt to extend himself beyond the simple comedic name brand that is by now associated with his films to the point of parody. Before his appearance on The Daily Show this last week, Jon Stewart joked that, while he doesn’t know what the new Judd Apatow film is about (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I bet it’s about some Jewish schlubs dating way out of their league.” Funny People, refreshingly enough, seems to be his first film that doesn’t explore this conceit previously associated with the films he’s been tied to both as writer/director and as producer.

Since his breakthrough in 2005 in his feature writing/directing debut The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow has been celebrated for creating a new heartfelt brand of sex comedy, mixing raunchy but rarely over-the-top humor with sincere and heartfelt storytelling and likable characters. He is credited for restoring faith in the R-rated comedy and pushing it away from both its fratty Vince Vaughn-plus-a-Wilson-brother trend and from the direction the increasingly cynical one-upsmanship of the gross-out sex comedy (e.g., the latter American Pie films). He also changed the face of the movie star, replacing the traditional attractive photogenie associated with the leading men of romantic comedies with the aforementioned schlubs, and audiences seemed to take a liking to seeing rather normal-looking dudes like Seth Rogen and Jason Segel becoming the silver screen’s new leading men and movie stars.

Through his role as producer, Apatow shepherded similarly plotted films, thus creating (intentionally or not) the Apatow brand of comedy, giving audiences the false impression that he has held the director’s chair for far more films than he actually has, and this brand has permeated to such an extent that this particular comedic aesthetic (and its handful of repeated actors usually involved) has come to be associated with films that he had no involvement in whatsoever (e.g., I Love You, Man).

Along the way, however, the Apatow brand has received criticism for appropriating the schlub-dating-out-of-his-league device as unrealistic wish fulfillment rather than a sincere and even cute approach to a new type of resonating romantic comedy. This criticism has most often occurred regarding the representation of female characters in his films, most famously with Katherine Heigl’s notorious criticism of Knocked Up as sexist (Apatow himself takes a winking stab at these criticism’s when Leslie Mann’s character, a former actress, tells Seth Rogen’s Ira that she “usually got cast as the bitch”).

With Funny People, Apatow avoids these criticisms altogether by finally making a movie that doesn’t conform itself to this repeated, and even exhausted, narrative approach, instead choosing to give a rare backstage look into the nature of comedy and what it is like to be a funny person. Of course, all his previous films have concerned protagonists attempting to overcome various inceptions of stunted adolescence, but Apatow takes this conceit to its most confrontational extreme thus far with his character George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a multimillionaire movie star who once had a knack for comedy but now has lost his love for it after years of carbon-copied dumb comedies, a love that he rekindles when jumping back into standup with Ira’s significantly younger community of comedians.

As Cole adeptly pointed out in his review, Simmons has obvious parallels with Sandler’s own career doing silly, dumb comedies that seem less and less funny with each go ‘round, and while Sandler seems bored with movies like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Don’t Mess with the Zohan (which makes his turn in Funny People a relieving departure, showing range as an actor unexplored since Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and reminding us all why we thought he was funny in the first place), he probably doesn’t possess the existential angst Simmons does.

Funny People is very much about the unfunny business of being funny, forwarding the long-held belief that comedy often comes from a dark and insecure place, as the posters of Richard Pryor and Peter Sellers decorating the walls of Ira’s apartment not only remind us of comedy’s greatest icons, but also serve as signposts for the troublesome personal lives behind their comedy, a characteristic Simmons fully embodies if not even represents. As many have said, Funny People is more a drama with funny characters than a comedy all its own. Where the comic bickering between the roommates of Knocked Up simply felt like funny actors playing funny characters and given room to riff off each other under the guidance of a director who loves improvisation and who seems to be no fan of editing, the similar bickering between Ira and his roommates in Funny People reads more as a defense mechanism for characters for whom comedy is an essential part of coping with an unforgiving everyday reality. Thus, even when the movie is funny, there is a dark truth lying behind that comedy.

I like what Apatow has tried to do here, and I appreciate that he has stepped beyond the bounds of his brand to give us a serious look at comedy that only a serious comedian can give. Of course, his previous two films had their share of heartfelt moments, but neither attempted to be as rooted with envisioning a portrayal of the complexity and difficulty of reality than Funny People. Apatow, however, does not always balance the drama and comedy so effectively, as moments that would be part and parcel of the hilarity of his other films – like Leslie Mann’s character (inexplicably) yelling at Eric Bana’s character (her husband) in a mocking Australian accent, or Apatow’s affinity for clever celebrity cameos – feel more like an avoidance on the part of the director to deal fully with the emotions he’s attempting to put on display or like a sign of desperate insecurity at making an alleged comedy without too many laughs, thus inserting them awkwardly into the narrative.

But with Funny People, Apatow has successfully grown beyond just being a reliable comic label and instead approaches the genre with more assuredness, freshness, and sincere emotional intent than any director of comedies working in mainstream filmmaking today. I would even venture to say Funny People marks a move echoing that of the career of John Cassavetes. While Cassavetes arguably never successfully worked in comedy, Funny People often reminded me of what the late filmmaker attempted to do with his seventies dramas. Like Apatow, Cassavetes had a stock group of actors he worked with in each film, and the natural closeness of actors familiar with one another allowed for effectively captured improvisation and a rare, often spontaneous naturalism of performance in films like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence. As a result of this unifying affinity for improvisation, both filmmakers are often characterized by scenes (and films) that run significantly long (sometimes too long) in a sign of respect for the performers, allowing their characters to play out scenes to their fullest extent. Interestingly enough, both Cassavetes and Apatow also enjoy casting members of their families in their films (though Leslie Mann is no Gena Rowlands).

Cassavetes’s landmark approach to improvisational filmmaking has been nothing foreign to drama since, but this respect for performers and character development is something rarely seen in American comedies. While Apatow may never achieve (or even seek) the naturalism of Cassavetes, he undeniably gives his performers far denser and layered characterization than comedy characters are usually permitted to possess, which results in an often surprisingly touching, challenging, and humanistic approach to comedy as well as impressive performances like that of Sandler’s. I’m not quite sure if all this works in the favor of Funny People, but I hope Apatow continues to develop this wholly unique approach to comedy in the future, and never be satisfied with the limitations of the Apatow label.

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