Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Funny People got no reason to smile

Funny People has lost some steam now, but we had some free passes, and I liked the trailer. Despite not being much of a Sandler fan outside of Punch-Drunk Love, I thought I'd give him a chance. He's pretty good here, but the script is about a half hour too long and feels like an Apatow version of The Royal Tenenbaums' basic premise at times. I enjoyed the first 90 minutes thoroughly, but kept looking at my watch once the second act rug-yank occurs. Oh, you'll laugh a lot. The film lives up to its title, but Apatow's third film as director shows little growth. He's gone from virgin to father to dying, but still has an undescended testicle.
I thought Seth Rogen showed some good range as an actor in this one, and while playing a young comedian looking for his break isn't a big stretch for the new star, he nails it and never feels like he's playing himself. Adam Sandler tries really hard to not be Adam Sandler, but it's obvious the part was written for him. He does a very good job with it, but it takes a long time for any depth to come to his character. The faults are with the screenplay, which takes an interesting premise- what does a famous comedian do when faced with death- and turns into a different movie by the end. I was enjoying the idea of George Simmons, the multimillionaire comedian turned actor who learns he has an 8% chance of surviving the year. He's lonely at the top, has made many mistakes and lives alone in a big house with the occasional starfucker he has limo'd out in the morning. When he shows up at an improv club and goes before a struggling young comic named Ira (Rogen), he likes how the "kid" reacts to this turn of bad luck and takes him on as a writer. And then, an assistant.

The film shines during the scenes of comedians in their natural habitat. Ira lives with a successful up and coming comedian named Leo (Jonah Hill) and one whose already transitioned to a popular but lame TV show (Jason Schwartzman) and it's very entertaining watching them riff off one another. We get a lot of cameos once Simmons lets people know about his illness, everyone from Paul Reiser and Charles Fleischer (more famous for voicing Roger Rabbit nowadays, but his stand up act is hilarious) to Norm Macdonald, Dave Atell and Sarah Silverman show up. They act like we imagine comedians would act around each other, a zillion laughs a minute. How true it is I don't know, but it has that veneer of realism. We only get hints at the pain behind the need to make people laugh. One of the first things George asks Ira about is his childhood; his parents are divorced, George says he never could make his father laugh. When he does make his father laugh, it's almost an afterthought.
The last 30 minutes of the movie are about George trying to get with the love of his life, Judd Apatow's wife Leslie Mann. I like her a lot- she was great in Knocked Up- but this storyline feels almost tacked on to give Judd's family screentime. His kids play the kids too. They were also in Knocked Up, and they're still cute and not annoying. But it's the kind of thing that gets distracting when you do it twice. Also, it seems like a movie in itself, jammed into a half hour, where Eric Bana and Adam Sandler vie for her affections. Ira does play the part of a child of divorce, trying to stop George from breaking up a family, but it doesn't have the comfortable feel the first two acts had. We've seen comics deal with death in Man on the Moon, Memories of Me and Tribute, but it would have been worth exploring again. Instead, we get a more familiar story about a jerk who learns he's a jerk, and tries to stop being a jerk. Scent of a Comedian? I wasn't expecting The King of Comedy either, but he flirts with the competitiveness of comics, the pain behind the laughs, the need to be loved taken to its celebrity extreme, and does nothing with it.
Just as the Director's Cut of 40 Year Old Virgin loses the tight pacing and meanders, this comes pre-extended. I don't want to know what the DVD with extra footage will be like. I've read that Aziz Ansari, who plays a comedian who jumps around a lot and says boy-eeee and generally acts like a caricature of a suburban white boy rapper fan, will be getting a starring role to explore this character. Russell Brand will also reprise his role from Forgetting Sarah Marshall as the pop singer, with Jonah Hill as his wrangler. Apatowland is starting to feel like SNL, spinning off of itself. I'd rather see Aubrey Plaza get some more work. This was a good, if not great movie but it was in dire need of an editor, or perhaps even a rewrite of Act III. Sometimes you see people who've impressed you begin to fail because no one has the balls to tell them something's not working, and they've lost that self-doubt that makes you strive to improve. They mock this in the movie with Simmons's acting career, but it happens with directors too. The guy who gave us Stripes and Ghostbusters? His last movie was My Super-Ex-Girlfriend.

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