Friday, July 31, 2009

Funny People: Far from amusing

Funny People (2009) • View trailer for Funny People
1.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity, sexual candor and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.31.09
Buy DVD: Funny People• Buy Blu-Ray: Funny People (2-Disc Unrated Collector's Edition) [Blu-ray]

Wow ... what a tedious, self-indulgent mess.

Filmmakers who decide to become "meaningful" must be regarded with eyebrow-raised skepticism, because it's a sure sign that somebody is taking himself much too seriously. The situation inevitably occurs because the artist in question  often a director  has made buckets of money in the recent past, and therefore has the clout to be green-lighted for what amounts to an insufferable vanity project.
When Clarke (Eric Bana, far right) returns home early from a business trip, his
wife, Laura (Leslie Mann), stumbles to find a reasonable explanation to justify
the presence of long-ago lover George (Adam Sandler, left) and tag-along Ira
(Seth Rogen) in their home. Because Clarke is such an idiot -- a failing that
afflicts every character in this film -- it's not that hard a sell.

Which, in a world where poetic irony rules, flops.

Think back to Steven Spielberg, who stumbled big time with 1941, after having been such a media darling with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Recall James Cameron, parlaying his two Terminator films into the mooningly melodramatic The Abyss. Or Barry Levinson, following Rain Man and Bugsy with the jaw-droppingly dreadful Toys.

Judd Apatow's shtick always has skirted the ragged edge of cruelty, and Funny People is distastefully mean-spirited. This is a sordid little tale of morally compromised troglodytes who are intended, in Apatow's imagination, to be sympathetic protagonists in his interminable, clumsily written narrative.

They are not sympathetic. They do not deserve happiness or anything else that might be construed as a "reward." As a group, they begin this film with the ethics of snake-oil salesmen, and their bad behavior remains consistent until a thoroughly unpersuasive epilogue.

They do not learn; they do not respect even their so-called best friends; they lack sense  common, good or any other kind  and carry on like spoiled children.

All of them. All the time.

Normally, such misanthropic behavior would be held up for low comedy, as was the case with Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up, both of which blended hilariously coarse dialogue with a sweet romantic underbelly. We tolerated and laughed at the former because the latter was a satisfying payoff: Steve Carell genuinely fell in love, Katherine Heigl did right by her unborn child.

Funny People, in great contrast, overflows with so much contrived melancholy and faux poignance that it becomes the sort of purple melodrama that Tom Servo and the 'bots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 would have roasted with glee.

Worse yet, this film gives us no satisfaction: nothing to be pleased with, as the lights finally rise after 146 interminable minutes.

The film begins as popular comedian-turned-film star George Simmons (Adam Sandler, essentially echoing his actual career) learns that he has a rare and fatal blood disease. His doctor begins experimental therapy, but the prognosis remains grim.

Exiting the building, George is waylaid by fans who beg for photographs; their wishes are granted, and they completely miss the despair evident in Sandler's gaze as he politely poses (one of this film's very few genuinely touching moments).

Perhaps seeking a nurturing environment, George pops into a local Los Angeles comedy club and does an impromptu routine. He's spotted by Ira (Seth Rogen) and Leo (Jonah Hill), both younger, struggling comics looking to make their bones.

Ira and Leo share an apartment with Mark (Jason Schwartzman, irritating as always), who has been luckier than his two roomies. As the star of an infantile TV sitcom, he's making so much money, and so quickly, that he "loses track" of the fat paychecks that get left, like childish nastygrams, where Ira and Leo can't help seeing them.

Ira, Leo and Mark indulge in the sort of filthy, sex-crazed, male-bonding banter that has become de rigueur in an Apatow production: a signature refrain that has, frankly, become tiresome from repeated exposure. Such dialogue no longer seems credibly vulgar. It's the same as Ira, Leo and George's stand-up routines: merely Apatow's notion of the way guys talk to each other.

Which is a good moment to mention, as well, that people no longer "act" in Apatow films; they're merely the ambulatory vehicles designed to deliver lines. Robots could generate more emotion.

For some reason necessary only for this script to continue, George takes a fancy to Ira and invites him to become both a gag writer and personal assistant: the latter a thankless task that involves all sorts of menial chores, all of which the enthusiastic nebbish willingly embraces. But Ira's duties aren't entirely demeaning; he's also asked to talk George to sleep each night, because slumber comes reluctantly.

Time passes. Ira enjoys his position in George's shadow, particularly since it enhances his own rising career.

Then things change. The more-or-less reasonable opening chapter yields to a less credible second act, when George decides that he wants to patch things up with long-ago first love Laura (Leslie Mann), now happily married and living in the Bay Area with her husband, Clarke (Eric Bana), and two daughters, Mable and Ingrid.

I should perhaps point out that Mann is married to Apatow in real life, and Mable and Ingrid are played by their actual daughters, Maude and Iris. Which is the sort of nepotism one also gets away with in Hollywood, when drunk with power. In fairness, both girls are reasonable little actresses. Mann, however, brings nothing to the party.

George initially wants only to apologize to Laura for past transgressions, but things get more complicated when she confesses that Clarke is cheating on her. To Ira's building horror, George makes a play for Laura, despite the certain knowledge that such behavior would wreck a marriage and destroy the lives of two charming little girls.

Apatow would like us to believe that Ira is this story's conscience  the pillar of moral integrity on hand to model proper behavior  but that's utter rubbish. Ira's no better than anybody else in this misbegotten narrative, and in some ways he's worse. All these people are contemptible.


• When George first calls with the request for assistance, the gag-writing offer is extended to both Ira and Leo ... but Ira fails to share this bit of good fortune with his supposed friend.

• Mark, meanwhile, has made a habit of sleeping with the women he knows Ira hopes to date: most notably, as we watch, with the appealingly mousy Daisy (Aubrey Plaza).

• George's first heartfelt request is that Ira never, ever mention the illness to anybody else, out of the quite reasonable fear that a media circus would erupt. Disregarding this warning, Ira immediately spills the beans to Leo and Mark. Somehow, though, George fails to get angry, and Ira doesn't get fired. (Yeah, right.)

Frankly, all these people deserve each other.

Such venal deportment is one thing; inconsistent actions are something else entirely. At times, solely so that Apatow's story can lurch forward, these characters change their minds  their very core attitudes  with a speed that induces whiplash.

After having been introduced as a now-wiser woman who regards George as poison, Laura crumbles into an emotional puddle and hops into bed with him. Then, following this tender moment, and having professed his determination to rescue Laura from her "miserable" life, George inexplicably disses her children (!?!) and turns back into a self-centered Hollywood jerk.

That's a switcheroo Sandler can't begin to sell; he hasn't near the acting chops.

One can't help wondering, at that juncture, if perhaps a few dozen expository scenes got left on the cutting-room floor. (Of course, that would have made this dreary film even longer: a fate worse than death.)

All this nonsense prompts a series of climactic confrontations that don't begin to make sense. At about this point, we've been expecting the film to end three or four times, but Apatow drags it out even further ... beyond all endurance.

Funny people? Not hardly. Not even in an ironic context.

I hope this proves to be a humbling experience, Judd. You need it.

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