Friday, August 7, 2009

Funny People

The trailers for Judd Apatow's Funny People (2009) have been cut to emphasize the film's snappy zingers (including a few that didn't make it into the finished film) and its story of a stand-up comedian who gets a new lease on life after a near-death experience. But the film is uncommonly heavy and morose. It's kind of fascinating how the same scene can be edited to hit different notes in the trailer and the film. For instance, a scene in which the Adam Sandler character makes fun of his doctor's heavy Swedish accent looks funny in the trailers, but in the film, it's incredibly tense and awkward with Sandler using humor to express hostility, and the doctor becoming increasingly annoyed. This is not by any means a feel good comedy, so if you're one of those idiots who needs to feel good, you should see something else instead--like Woody Allen's Whatever Works (also 2009).

The film plays like Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972) with more penis jokes. The Sandler character, George Simmons, is a mega-rich comedian and film star who's bitter, self-loathing, and hostile. Here is a man who could've been happy, but pissed it all away, and maybe he deserves to be alone. I certainly wanted to get the hell away from him. Early in the film Simmons is diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia--apparently, the kind that doesn't make you sick. After he's miraculously cured, he has a curious conversation with Eminem (in one of the film's many celebrity cameos), in which Eminem tells him that he caught a bad break by surviving, and that death could've been his way out. Is this supposed to be funny?

The story takes on a surprising moral complexity in the second half when Simmons tries to win back an old girlfriend, Laura (Leslie Mann). She left Simmons for cheating on her, but is now married to Clarke (Eric Bana), an Australian businessman who also cheats on her. Is Simmons being selfish in trying to break apart her marriage? When Simmons goes to see her in San Francisco, he brings along Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling comedian that Simmons has enlisted to write some jokes for him. He thinks what Simmons is doing is wrong, but is it any of his concern, or should he just mind his own business? And when he does get involved, he only makes things worse. This is a moral dilemma that might've appealed to Krzyzstof Kieslowski or Eric Rohmer.

Did I like the film? No, but a movie can be unlikeable and still be interesting. If the film isn't as much fun as Paul Schrader's Auto Focus (2002)--another film about a washed-up comedian who creates his own private hell--it's because Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) was upbeat, cheerful, and very shallow. Simmons knows his life is empty and meaningless, and is resigned to it. Rogen at least is appealing as the young ingenue, so it's all the more mysterious why his character chooses to spend his time in the company of this depressive, verbally abusive crank. The art direction abstains from bright colours, adding to the film's sombre mood, and the shadowy cinematography is by Janusz Kaminski, who won an Oscar for Schindler's List (1993). If you're ever feeling too elated, and need something to bring you down, here's the film to do the trick.


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