Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Thoughts on Funny People

Funny People is a bizarre, 146-minute dramedy about dying and dick jokes.

(Minor spoilers)

Let's start from the beginning: I adore Judd Apatow's previous work. His first two features (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up) were unambitious and beautiful for it. Both had logical beginning- and end-points from which to hang a narrative based on improv comedy. In Virgin, the story begins when Steve Carell's friends learn about his virginity. It ends when Carell loses it. With Knocked Up, we start with Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl having unprotected sex. We end with Heigl giving birth.

These plots sound facile on paper, but Apatow's genius lies in how he riffs off a simple premise. Judd's work is strongest when he crafts a charming story, fills it with believable characters, collects a pool of razor-sharp comics, and lets them loose on his material. Within this formula, Apatow acts more as ringmaster than director. His films unfold like a form of controlled chaos. Effortless, plot-driven stories collide with the sloppiness of individual scenes. Such is the pattern with Judd's first films: Tight overarching narrative, loose distinct sequences.

And, for me, this works. The films are long, but their narratives remain in perpetual motion. Judd drives the story, while his actors -- through their breathless asides about Munich, Steely Dan, and pot -- careen it into a ditch, scene after scene. The sequences breathe with the slow-flow of real life; they don't feel like mere plot points.

After two films, Judd already seemed like an auteur. Both his features explored this idiosyncratic structure, creating a style of American comedy uniquely Apatow-esque.

Which brings us to Funny People. Judd's apologists will applaud this movie for its "mature" and "complex" narrative. But the difference between complex and incoherent, mature and self-serious, is a big one. With Funny People, Judd bites off a miniseries' worth of material and streamlines it into a feature. Imagine "Freaks and Geeks," Judd's beloved 1999 TV show, as a feature film. Imagine the character arcs and narrative turns paraded one after another. Much of the charm would evaporate, wouldn't it? Suddenly, each scene must have an overt purpose, because when you're dealing with a half-dozen characters in a shorter run-time, those Apatow-esque digressions give way to the bottom line: plot.

Let's take one scene from Funny People to illustrate. Toward the end of the film, Adam Sandler, Leslie Mann, and Seth Rogen watch a video of Mann's daughter performing a Cats number. As they watch, Sandler repeatedly flips open his phone to read texts, then cracks a crude comment about how the clip would have been even funnier on acid.

More than any moment from Judd's previous films, this sequence paints in broad strokes. The scene exists solely to illustrate how Sandler can be a jerk. It functions as a plot point, nothing more. Later in the film, Mann uses this moment as ammo for why she should stay with her husband -- because Sandler didn't cry during her daughter's performance. Had Sandler just faked interest like a normal person (his character is, after all, a "good actor"), it follows that Mann wouldn't have had second thoughts, and the course of the film would have shifted dramatically. But, instead, Sandler play the scene like an ass, because that benefits the plot. Sandler acts illogically for the convenience of our story. Judd then overplays an already-dismal hand, cutting to multiple reaction shots of Rogen and Mann looking disgusted. With zero subtlety, Judd telegraphs his plot point: Maybe Sandler isn't ready for a family after all. Maybe Mann should stick with her husband.

Not every scene plays this clumsily, but the greater point remains: Large Cast + Commitment to Character Development + Multilayered Plot + Limited Run Time = Corners Cut. At least in this case.

Had I made Funny People, I would have cut the number of scenes and padded the length of the ones remaining. Apatow, god bless him, is the only director working in mainstream comedy who provides too much character development. As an extreme reaction to There's Something About Mary's brand of surface-deep comedy, Judd adores his characters and their every motivation. And, here, it's to a fault.

For the sake of telling a modest story effectively, I'd cut the follow scenes and subplots:
  • Rogen's romance. I'd cut the entire thing. Again, this feels like one giant plot point. These scenes exist because Apatow wants to establish that Rogen has a stronger moral compass than Sandler, at least when it comes to women. He needs to do this, of course, for the convenience of his plot. Rogen takes the moral high ground in the film's climactic airport sequence, and Judd wants to avoid having this character trait come out of left-field. So, he uses Rogen's romance to show that Seth has a traditional, romantic streak. He's the kind of guy who thinks asking a girl on a date means you're officially "dating." I'd tone down Rogen's moral hysteria in the last 45 minutes, thus eliminating the need to prime viewers for his antics with a forced romance.
  • Sandler's family. Cut the scene with his sister and the one with his parents. Unlike the conversations in Knocked Up between Seth and his dad, these scenes play like lifeless, obligatory stabs at character development.
  • Eric Bana's affair. This doesn't eat up much screen time, but it's lazy and a cheat. To make viewers feel better about Mann's behavior, Judd throws in a few lines about Bana straying. Develop this further, and you'd have something. As is, it's a shortcut to show that Mann is unhappy in her marriage, and a cheap ploy to create viewer sympathy for her. Plenty of people have feelings for past lovers, even if their current partner isn't a schmuck.
  • iTunes playlist scene. No human being would storm out of a room because 30 seconds of some acoustic guitar ballad (one which they've presumably never heard) sends them reeling. Further, no one would ever put an acoustic guitar ballad on a mix designed to cheer up a friend.
  • Celebrity cameos. Judd has a lot of power these days, and with a $70 million budget he can afford to indulge in excess. But these scenes rarely added to the story, and, even worse, they weren't particularly funny. One of Knocked Up's clunkiest moments involved a Ryan Seacrest cameo. Here, we get Eminem taking easy stabs at his anger-management issues. Scenes and entire characters feel rushed, but boy was that Norm Macdonald cameo worth it.
  • Dick jokes. I've yet to hear a good argument for the movie's wild tonal shift between sentimentality and crude humor. Some might say the tension between the two is "interesting," but I'd more call it nonsensical. What are dick jokes meant to signify? The man-child mentality? If so, why does the film's mature character (Rogen) pop just as many dick quips as the movie's adolescent anti-hero (Sandler)? These jokes flesh out the film's unique tone -- subdued and languid, with the occasional burst of juvenilia -- but my question is why? I fear Judd inserted them to keep our attention, which doesn't say much for his meandering, aimless storyline.
  • Opening credits. You have video of Sandler making crank calls when he was a young comic, and I'm sure this footage means a great deal to you. So does the whole film. Funny People is clearly your labor-of-love project, your Synecdoche, New York. But just watch the clip again, Judd. It's just not that funny. Would have been hilarious if you were there, no doubt. But, on screen, to open your film, it's a red flag for what we're about to get: a heaping scoop of self-indulgence.Save yourself 90 seconds and cut it. It'd make a killer special feature for the DVD.
Now, I've been pretty hard on the film, but this comes from disappointment more than anything. Were this Judd's first film, I might be writing about an uncompromising new voice in American comedy. And there's a lot to like here. The film does have laughs and a few touching moments, including a lovely scene with Sandler at Thanksgiving dinner. Jonah Hill makes me laugh every time he opens his mouth. But, in the end, I'd have to agree with the critical community: Funny People is a shambles. It's one big cauldron of Judd's trademarks, taken to the extreme, and with little regard for coherence.

Perhaps this comes down to taste, but I tend to prefer modest films that execute their goals with precision over behemoth, mixed-bag ambition projects. I prefer Eternal Sunshine to Synecdoche; No Country for Old Men to There Will Be Blood, The Orphanage to Pan's Labyrinth. I'd call Funny People a failure, but one worth seeing.