Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why Funny People will be the least successful Judd Apatow film

Because it has ambitions beyond dick jokes and sex humor. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of dick jokes -- in fact, with a near two-and-a-half-hour running time, there may well be more dick jokes in Funny People than on any other Apatow opus. But for the first time, it seems like the current Dean of Movie Comedy wants to dig deeper than just that, to find the sadness behind the humor. The effort is much better than most responses would indicate.

The film, in theory, would obviously be that film in any celebrated director's oeuvre that is set out to be slaughtered among the critical mass -- the movie that typically comes at the height of a popular director’s fame, where the director in question attempts to skew his/her perspective, overreach his/her grasp, and deliver a big, unfortunate dud. Funny People falls directly into that vein, and yet Apatow sidesteps the pitfalls and delivers what is obviously his most personal film to date, but beyond that, he delivers his first film that truly feels like it was burning inside of him. It was not merely the “personal movie”; it was the story that Apatow deeply needed to tell.

Yes, the movie is long. I would disagree with the arguments that the film is overlong, but they are understandable. In truth, however, the film is much more appropriately long than Knocked Up, which ran only about 15 minutes shorter than this opus, felt like it ran 15 minutes longer, and played like the DVD Director’s Cut version, which included bits that viewers usually acknowledge were rightfully cut from the theatrical cut. Funny People is appropriately long, mostly because it takes time for Apatow’s full vision to unfold. The only problem, in my view, is the short section in the third act when it seems like Apatow is actually rushing the drama to keep the film from going even longer…if anything, the movie could have benefitted from better pacing in the late going, even if that meant the running time extending an extra 5 or 10 minutes. This story is worth the care and attention.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the story: this is the introspective Apatow movie, a comedy about a huge jerk-off star who learns he has terminal cancer. Right off the bat, you know the movie will NOT be a huge success, and you also know that most reviews will chide the film for being selfish, insular, and pretentious. And you know, it is those three things, only I don’t necessarily consider them to be pejorative terms. Whatever happened to “the more personal the story, the more universal the message”? Sure, this is a movie about very particular people, but more than being “The Apatow Cancer Movie,” this is a movie about human nature, about self-discovery after a lifetime of being lost in a haze. It is, if possible, much more nebulous and introspective than even the trailer makes it seem, which simultaneously confirms its place as the most interesting film of the Apatow Era, and solidifies the fact that it will be the least monetarily successful of same.

I have given a lot of praise and a lot of criticism to Apatow since his instantaneous ascent after 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but Funny People marks a big turning point in the filmmaker’s career. It is sprawling, it is dark, and it allows the filmmaker himself an opportunity to reflect on both the positive and negative sides to the success of his earlier work. It also allows him to cast Adam Sandler in a role that basically exposes Sandler’s easy, stupid comedy films as the mindless, money-making frauds they are. It is a remarkable feat of self-actualization for both men.

Apatow is clearly stretching to explore new territory -- as well as the darker, unexplored sides of similar territory -- and nearly everything works. The acting is fabulous. Sandler is as good as he’s ever been, at the very top of his game in both the dramatic and comedic realms. Seth Rogen continues to play new, interesting characters, for the first time here playing the nice guy, the innocent -- and, as the character from whose perspective this story takes place, he is sort of the lead. He never misses a beat. Eric Bana pops up late in the game and plays a difficult comedic role with ease, with a relaxed humor he has never before exhibited in film. And in an alternate universe where the movie were better received, Leslie Mann would score an Oscar nomination for her work as Sandler’s long lost love, who has truly grown into her place as an adult while Sandler’s character is only an adult in age and appearance. Beyond the acting, Apatow’s writing is as acutely aware of the human condition that it ever has been, and his visual sense has leapt forward about ten steps of evolution from where it was previously. Nabbing the incredible Janusz Kaminski as his D.P. surely aided the progression, but Apatow clearly set out to learn how to make a real movie this time out, and the results are the best directing he has ever done.

I’ve gone on and on, and yet I haven’t fully discussed where this work’s power truly lies -- its structure. It would be very easy to make the movie about the “Lost Soul Finds Out He’s Dying, Discovers He’s A Jerk, and Dedicates His Life to Regaining His Goodness.” It would be easy to create the new, charming world in which the dying protagonist re-evaluates himself, finds his old flame, and lives happily ever after…until he succumbs to the disease, of course, while smiling at his newfound peace. That would be very easy, indeed…but it is not what Apatow is chasing. The fraudulence of that sweet story is merely his first act, and Funny People then becomes not simply the story of what happens when one discovers that death is on the horizon, but what happens when one discovers that before death, there is life to be lived. Death, Apatow seems to be saying, is easy; living is harder. That is the challenge of Funny People. It is the reason the film will not be viewed as “successful,” and also why it is the most truly successful film of Judd Apatow’s career.

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