Monday, August 3, 2009
I may at last have seen an Apatow Productions film that could benefit from the inevitable extended cut on DVD. Strange, considering that, of the three films he's written and directed and the seemingly dozens of others he's co-written or produced over the last five years, this one suffers the most from his bloated running times. Funny People, however, needs a longer cut, or at least a version that substitutes new scenes for old, bloated ones.
Ideally, a re-cut of the film would drastically alter its third act, which is really a fourth act and possibly a fifth. All two (or three) of these final acts are resolved in the last five minutes of the film, and therein lies the problem. Funny People is Apatow's most personal project yet, and an objective hand needed to step in to revise the structure.
Oh well, if he insists on making a two-and-a-half hour dramedy, Apatow certainly knows how to stuff it to the rafters. George Simmons (Adam Sandler) learns that he suffers from a rare, life-threatening blood disease at the start of the film, and that he only has an 8 percent chance of survival. An hour later, however, he recovers. That leaves 3/5 of a film to handle the dissipated tension.
This structure is the film's strength and weakness, because it opens a bold, real type of movie that seeks to relay its message naturally, without plot contrivances or a need to get plot out of the way first. On the other hand, a film about a person coming to terms with a near-death experience and bettering himself as a result should address that experience, something Funny People constantly sidesteps.
Filling the gaps in the first hour (and the rest of the film) is a small group of struggling actors and comedians who share an apartment in L.A. Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) works a deli counter by day, but his real passion is stand-up. Noticeably rough around the edges, Ira nevertheless manages to slightly impress George, who came to the comedy club to vent some of his fears and frustrations on stage. George hires Ira to write jokes and, eventually, to serve as a full-time assistant, much to the jealousy and awe of Ira's flatmates Leo (Jonah Hill), another amateur comic clearly destined for the big leagues, and Mark (Jason Schwarztman), a moderately talented actor who scored the lead on an insufferably painful sitcom about a teacher connecting with inner-city youth.
Rogen and Sandler carry the film, and they both produce some of their finest work. It's a shame, that some people profess an exasperation with Rogen, as he's finally nailed down a style that allows him to utilize his impressive gift for improvisation while remaining on-topic. His Ira is wonderfully and hopelessly awkward on-stage, and he provides the film a beating heart to replace George's calloused, blackened one in the reflective moments. Sandler channels that darkness he brought to the fore in Punch-Drunk Love; still funny but searching for life's meaning, George at last realizes his solitude after a lifetime of losing himself to the false love of Hollywood, and Sandler beautifully captures the pain of a man who has everything but the only woman he ever loved.
That woman is played by Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann, who must shoulder the burden of much of the film's drama. When George shows signs of recovery, he attempts to reconnect with her Laura, and Mann brings serious weight to a character who must reconcile her lingering feelings for George, her anguish and resentment concerning her husband (played by an alternately loopy and intimidating Eric Bana in an interesting role clearly, tragically cut down in post-production) as well as her fears of divorce. She doesn't fully factor into the story until the last hour, which is a vital mistake because she lifts it out of the mire of its bloated middle section. Mann stole the show in Knocked Up, and she nearly does so here, though Schwartzman reigns triumphant with his irascible, pompous jerk.
Funny People is unlike anything Judd Apatow has ever made or produced, indeed unlike any comedy-drama that I can think of at the moment. The near-death epiphany is a well-trod road, but filtering it through the bleak no man's land of stand-up comedy gives it an edge. Most people tend to think of stand-up as some glorious job that lands you fame, wealth and nookie, but in reality most spend their whole lives struggling to even pay the rent (when they're even home, that is). Incidentally, when I was a kid, my friends used to encourage me to become a comedian when I grew up, not realizing that A) half of the jokes I told from the ages of 5-15 I'd cribbed from films and television and B) they were essentially trying to condemn me to a life of poverty and crippling cynicism. Notice how George, who broke out of the stand-up circuit and into Hollywood megastardom 20 years ago, returns to the stage as much out of fatalism and resignation as a desire to recapture a moment of youth.
That's what makes the massive flaws of the film all the more glaring: it has so much going for it. For all its dark comedy and interesting characters, it spends far too much time repeating segments to pad the length. Only two Yo Teach! clips should have stayed in the final cut, and the first act needed to leave a good 15 minutes on the cutting room floor. In the final, shortest act, Apatow bombards us with both Ira and George's relationship woes, an argument between Ira and his friends and conflict between George and Laura's husband (which in turn leads to conflict between George and Ira), and then he seeks to resolve all of these threads in a disjointed semi-montage. It undoes much of what makes Funny People great, and it results in a film that manages to connect enough to warrant a ticket purchase but severely disappoints in the end. Its most damning aspect, though, is that, for a film about bettering oneself, George never really changes until the final moments. What, then, was the point of sitting through those repetitive two-and-a-half hours?