Sunday, August 16, 2009

And Now What?: Funny People

The “And What Now?” series continues with the film that inspired it, a look at Judd Apatow’s Funny People. I think there’s a wide gap in the media discourse about the film and the film itself. The big story about the film was the idea that this was Apatow’s most serious project yet, a film that brought him to a crossroads between the goofy comedies of the past, and a serious meditation on life and death, with the implicit implication that the film would prove too difficult or dramatic for audiences to deal with. Has that happened? Perhaps, the film certainly hasn’t performed as well as some other Apatow films, but I think that’s largely a function of the media presentation of the movie rather than the movie itself.

I don’t think that Funny People is that much more dramatic than Knocked Up. Both films featured a blend of lowbrow raunchy comedy with some moments of real emotional soul searching by the protagonist when he’s given some unexpected news that breaks up his comfortable, but empty life. Sure, the hook of Funny People is darker, but the film is still pretty funny. And, it’s troubling to me that the studio will likely blame the film’s ‘failure’ on its ambitious blend of comedy and drama, and ambling narrative approach, meaning they’re less likely to greenlight another comedy that doesn’t have an obvious high concept hook. I’ve been trying to support mostly original films this summer, and it’s not good to see this and Public Enemies presented as ‘failures’ when in reality they’ll make more money back down the line than a film like Wolverine or G.I. Joe that opens huge, but quickly plummets. But, the opening weekend gives those films the allure of success, an allure that alludes Enemies and People.

But, business stuff aside, I think the film does represent a more mature Apatow in the sense that the dual protagonist structure allows him to explore both the person he was, in the form of Seth Rogen’s Ira, and the person he might become, Sandler’s George. It’s clearly a personal film, but I think it represents one of the central problems that successful directors face, the growing distance from normal life that comes with success. Apatow makes movies all day, that’s the world he’s in, and if he’s going to write authentically, it’s going to be about that world.

But, I think that ‘normal’ people always find it difficult to sympathize with the troubles of someone like George who, on the surface, seems to have everything he could ever want. The scene where he gets the news he has cancer, then has to pose for a photo with a fan makes clear that there’s a huge downside to being a celebrity. You always have to be on, no matter what, and it’s even tougher for someone who’s supposed to be funny. But, it still feels a bit like whining when nearly everyone in the audience would gladly trade places with George, or by proxy, Sandler or Apatow.

So, the question arises, what are the stories you can tell once you’ve got everything? You can wind up with a film like this, or Fosse’s All that Jazz, an exploration/critique of what fame has done to you. But, where do you go from there? When you’ve told your showbiz story, what do you do next?

I think the thing that makes Funny People or All That Jazz work so well where other films set in the world of film fail is that it’s not assuming that this world is inherently interesting, it’s just using it as a way to explore character.

But, the question still arises, where does Apatow go from here? He’s created such a defined aesthetic, a brand, that at this point even films he’s not involved with, like I Love You Man, make it seem like he’s ubiquitous. I like a lot of Apatow produced stuff, but at the same time, I’m more interested in seeing him develop his own voice than in getting more watchable but unexceptional films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Can Apatow keep walking the line between comedy and drama as well as he has in his past two films, or will he retreat into the easier world of straight up comedy? And, where will he draw on for his material?

I hope that Apatow isn’t scared off by the mixed reaction to Funny People and keeps going deeper and more character centric with his films. I know the film was criticized for its two and a half hour running time, but it’s precisely that lengthy running time that allows the film to build a world, and give you a sense of these characters’ lives. You could tell this story in 90 minutes, but in doing so, you’d cut out the moments that make it great. The more built up the world is, the less you notice the gears of a three act screenplay grinding under the surface. I get no satisfaction from just “watching a story unfold,” I want to get immersed in a world and characters’ lives, and that’s what this film did.

I don’t think Funny People was a flawless film by any means, but I love the way it built on the rambling narrative style and mix of comedy and drama in his previous films, and I hope he can continue to find the way forward and doesn’t become like the George Simmons character in the film.


malpractice said...

I liked 'Funny People' quite a bit, although i think it got a bit rushed towards the end there. Props to Apatow (and i guess Sandler) for letting the main character be such an asshole.

I do disagree about 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall' being unexceptional. That's my favorite Apatow related movie.

Patrick said...

The central problem I had with Forgetting Sarah Marshall was that it played out as a bit too much of a male fantasy, where there's two gorgeous girls fighting over this one schlubby guy. It's not that it couldn't happen in real life, it just feels like an all too typical narrative, where the beautiful girl can find the inner beauty of a guy, but the guy doesn't seem ready to give a woman the same opportunity. There's some good bits in the movie, and I really like the puppet musical stuff, but it just didn't quite do it for me.