Monday, August 3, 2009

Resident Film Critic Chris Cabin Reviews - Judd Apatown's Funny People

The opening of Judd Apatow's third film Funny People sees Adam Sandler when he was still young, making a prank phone call to a local deli. It was shot by Mr. Apatow while Sandler and he were living together in LA and though it is a real video that pre-dates Sandler's salad days on SNL, it is also meant to be a video tape of George Simmons, the absurdly wealthy comedy kingpin Mr. Sandler plays in Apatow's latest two-hour-plus comedy.

Unlike the protagonist of Apatow's last two films, it is not maturity that is weighing on George but rather mortality; though, it could be argued that the latter informed the hesitancy towards the former. George has recently been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and has taken on an experimental regiment to attempt to beat it. A box-office tyrant, George has starred in such films as Merman, My Best Friend is a Robot and Re-Do, in which a wizard turns him into a baby with the brain and face of an adult; he shows nothing but disdain for all his films as he contemplates oblivion.

George exists in a dream world where comedians are so rich they don't even have to bother with being funny. Ira (Seth Rogen) has just begun a hopeful ascent to such a world. After working days at a deli counter, Ira goes home and writes stand-up material with roommates Leo (the invaluable Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman) that he hopefully gets to peddle at the legendary Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach.

Here, Apatow sets up an immediately intriguing dynamic. Mark acts in a cheesy sitcom called Yo Teach! and makes more money in a week than Ira makes in a year; Leo gets more notoriety at the clubs and is a more popular performer in general. Apatow never attempt to justify why Leo and Mark are more successful than Ira past the fact that Mark knows how to sell himself and Leo is, quite simply, funnier than him at this specific interval. It gives both Ira and his struggles (on and off-stage) more definition.

After a grimly narcissistic set at the club, George asks both Ira and Leo to come write jokes for him. Feeling he's owed one, Ira takes the job for himself and neither Rogen nor Apatow slink away from the cordial backstabbing that many Hollywood careers are based on. Soon enough, Ira is writing for George and becoming his sole confidant, pressuring him to make peace with family, friends and colleagues before it's too late. "I think I played it all wrong" says George before he is informed by his Swedish doctor (Torsten Voges) that the leukemia has apparently been cleared from his system.

Life as he knew it can now continue but, after seeing death, George wants a crack at the normal life. This is where Laura (Leslie Mann, the off-screen Mrs. Apatow) comes in with her high-pitched voice and waves of dirty-blonde hair; "the one who got away" as George puts it. Now married to an Australian businessman (Eric Bana) with two kids (played by Apatow and Mann's daughters, Iris and Maude), Laura divulged that she still was in love with George when she found out he was dying. His rebirth seems the perfect platform for them to reunite, with Ira playing chaperone.

Like any celebrity, George wants for a normal life but never stops to think if he's capable of one. For him, death was his one brutal glance at the one thing that all humans, private jet or not, have to face eventually. He regresses in character to who he was before fame but when it comes surging back into his bloodstream, he can't ignore his given nature. Ira cries when Laura puts on a tape of her daughter singing "Memory" from the Broadway show CATS but all George can do is look at updates for a possible sequel to Re-Do and remark how his druggie friends might get a kick out of the "Memory performance. He is an entertainer and cannot help but see the funny side of things; he is not programmed naturally for compassion. The populous is the only thing he could ever commit to.

Apatow's apparent touchstone here is the early work of James L. Brooks, especially the excellent Broadcast News. Similarly, that film dealt with the moral highs-and-lows of modern television; entertainment versus insight and information. Funny People is less biting than that film but the interplay is similar. The way Holly Hunter softens her blow when William Hurt brings her a human interest story mirrors Rogen's hesitation to let George really have it when he realizes he's breaking up Laura's marriage. There's also the communal nature of the comedy world that gives the film a very distinct flavor of insider drama; Paul Reiser, Sarah Silverman, Eminem and Ray Romano all make great cameos.

Apatow softens his blow at the very end but I found myself overwhelmed by the ambition and overall craftsmanship of Funny People. Even the transitions seemed less bumpy after a second viewing. Sandler is playing a fascinating version of himself here and part of the pull of the film is considering just how much of George is Sandler. And despite the fact that Rogen's character is prominent throughout, there is no question that this is George's film, deeply affected by the throws of humor and fame. Early on in the film, George refers to humor as a necessary defense he developed to please and quell his father and at the heart of Apatow's film is the question of rehabilitation even from the most basic parts of our character. In the end, George finds a healthy way to channel his need for laughs with Ira but the bug is still there and it seems clear that it always will be.

Chris Cabin is THE resident film critic and his opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Kings County Bop. You can find his reviews at AMC's as well as linked from Rotten Tomatoes, complete with several comments, none about his facial hair.

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