Friday, July 31, 2009

Funny People

Directed by Judd Apatow
Written by Judd Apatow
Starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, and Leslie Mann

The title is Funny People and being that the film is written and directed by Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) one would assume that the key word is "funny." That assumption would be secured in the fact that the film stars Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, two very funny and talented comedians. However, despite those above mentioned assurances and even though this film has some really funny moments the key word in the title is "people."

This is a movie about people. People who are real, honest, flawed, caring, loving, jealous, selfish and as the title suggest-funny. I know the people in this film. My friends are like these people. I have worked with these people. I have done sketch shows with these people. My family members are like these people. I am like these people. This is one of the most honest and authentic portrayals of people that I have ever seen on film. There were times in which I squirmed in my seat because I have acted like the characters on screen in word, deed, and feeling. This is what happens when I watch Apatow films. Whether he wrote it, directed it, or produced it his film are defined by the characters, the humor, and the true to life situations.

Funny People feels even more familiar because it is his most personal film. The film opens with a home video of Adam Sandler, in character, making prank phone calls. This isn't a home video produced for the film it is an actual home video of Adam Sandler making prank phone calls and it was shot by Judd Apatow twenty years ago. Through out his career Apatow has made many friends in the world of comedy and many of them are in this film. He cast his wife Leslie Mann to play a mother and his own daughters, Maude and Iris, to play her daughters. The story is based on an unrevealed friend's battle with a terminal illness. I have to imagine that the experiences of the characters are based on his own experiences. The film is more authentic than his other films because he is putting his life on the screen. I have a great deal of respect for him for doing it, but the question is does this make for a great film?

The answer is yes and very much so.

The story follows comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler) who has achieved a great deal of professional success. He is diagnosed with a terminal illness and for the first time begins to question the course of his life. He quickly realizes that he is selfish, shallow, and worse of all alone. He hires a young comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to be his personal assistant and to write jokes for him. The working relationship turns into something resembling a friendship, although it appears to be one sided with Ira caring more about George. Ira encourages George to reach out to his friends and family during his remaining time on Earth.

Adam Sandler is great in this film. He is the star of it and he has the courage to play the character without looking for sympathy. The character is a real son of a bitch and while he is aware of it, he doesn't seem to want to change it. When bad things happen to him it is because he is a victim, not because he has done anything wrong. He cheated on the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann) and while he acknowledges that he was wrong for doing it, he stills feels like he deserves another shot. He needs somebody to talk to him while he falls asleep; this is actually in Ira's job description. I cannot imagine a more selfish need than this one. Ira pulls a chair up next to his bed and talks to him until he abruptly falls asleep, ending the conversation. Sandler has a few chances to ask for sympathy, but he turns them down. For instance, when George is invited over to Ira's place for Thanksgiving dinner he gives a big toast about how the people around the table should enjoy their twenties because it is the best time of their lives. This speech isn't for the benefit of the people around the table it is for his own personal nostalgia and Sandler shows that on George's face. He is talking about the things that he misses in his life, not encouraging them to enjoy this time in their lives.

Any sympathy we have for anybody in this film is through the character Ira Wright, because he is a genuinely good person. Ira is struggling to begin his career. He lives with two other comedians named Mark (Jason Schwartzman) and Leo, (Jonah Hill) who are enjoying much more success. Mark is the star of a terrible sitcom called "Yo Teach", and he makes a lot of money for it. Actually, he makes $25,000 a week for it; we know this because he leaves the check stub on Ira's pillow. Leo isn't as successful but he is constantly being booked for stand up gigs and is beginning to establish his career. These details are important because they not only define Seth Rogen's character but also reveal the world of comedy to the audience. It is a cutthroat world and Ira has trouble because he isn't as aggressive as his friends. It has nothing to do with talent it has everything to do with his character and confidence. He is a good person trying to survive in a competitive world, even when he makes mistakes. The one time he does wrong somebody it blows up in his face and it feels like it is more out of desperation than malice.

He can't even keep up in the world of dating because he doesn't want to simply sleep with women, he wants to get to know them and be in a relationship. He has a crush on his neighbor Daisy (Aubrey Plaza) but is too afraid to talk to her. Mark just wants to have sex with her. He tells Ira that he has ten days to make his move and if he doesn't he will sleep with her. Mark ends up giving Ira three weeks and then sleeps with her. When Ira finds out he is hurt because A) Mark slept with her just because he could and B) because Daisy went along with it. Ira is a nice guy and this film doesn't guarantee that nice guys will win out in the end.

Ira actually cares for George and considers him a friend. Whenever George realizes this he corrects Ira but doesn't send him away because he is afraid to be alone. Ira stays with George in these situations because he cares for him.

I sincerely hope that after this film Seth Rogen is finally recognized as an actor that does comedy instead of a "comedic actor." From The 40 Year Old Virgin to Knocked Up to Pineapple Express Rogen has delivered strong-character-driven performances. He deserves to be recognized for the work that he puts in to his films because it is really impressive.

Finally, I want to end where I began, with Judd Apatow. I want to applaud him for telling this story as filmmaker rather than a comedian. Traditionally, comedies don't rely on filmmaking techniques as much as they rely on the zany performances to carry the film. Judd Apatow hired Janusz Kaminski to be the Cinematographer for this film. Janusz won an Academy Award for Schindler's List and has worked on every Spielberg film since. If you are hiring him to make your film look that good it implies that you are more interested in making a film rather than a "comedy."

If Apatow were interested in just making a comedy so that people would laugh he would not have made this film. He set out to make a strong film about people who work in comedy. He didn't really on jokes to tell this story, he relied on his characters. He hired people that are typically though of as comedians to act, not perform, in this film. When the film is funny it is because they are using jokes not doing "bits."

This is not a gut busting film and it is kind of a downer at times, but it is a great film.

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