November 24, 2009

Funny People

Reviewer: Jonathan Poritsky
Rating (out of 5): ****

Judd Apatow’s third film (after 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) Funny People, is slow, disjointed, and riddled with long breaks between laughs. It is also something close to an American comedy masterpiece. Which doesn't mean that it is among the funniest American films. While Funny People is decidedly a film about people, the “funny” in the title is less apparent. But it calls into question our preconceived definitions of comedy: What makes someone a comedian? What makes the rest of us laugh?

Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a comedy megastar who tries to get back to his stand up roots after learning he has a terminal illness. After being lampooned by struggling comedian Ira Wright, played with the expected cuddly scrappiness by Seth Rogen, Simmons finds a kindred spirit in the young heckler and hires him on as his assistant. Overnight, Ira goes from the least successful schlub is his apartment of young talents to the right hand man of their childhood hero. His roommates, Leo Koenig and Mark Taylor Jackson (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman, respectively) embody the very definition of platonic love, even though they spend the bulk of the movie violently ribbing their couch-dwelling friend. It is obvious that when they all came to Hollywood, they would stick with one another through the bitter end.

Adam Sandler is phenomenal in the lead role; this is truly the performance of his career. Try as he might, Sandler hasn't been able to make the leap from comedy to drama as successfully as, say, Tom Hanks. Not for lack of trying: his notable forays into serious fare, Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, gained him critical respect but not quite the adoration of audiences. However, the dark and disturbing corners he explored in Punch-Drunk Love, combined with his own experiences, are what make him perfect in this new role. George is a man whose spirit has been dampened, beaten down over the years until he only knew how to do one thing: make people laugh at any cost to his pride or his interpersonal relationships. Anyone could get George’s dramatic overtones right, but a masterful laugh-maker is required to make the comedy work through the drama rather than alongside it.

On his third outing as director, Judd Apatow begins to stretch his artistic chops, evidenced in part by the choice to work with cinematographerJanusz Kaminski, the Polish impresario who rarely leaves Steven Spielberg’s employ (and who was nominated for an Oscar for his extraordinary first-person-POV work on Julian Schnabel'sThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It doesn’t seem to have been such a well-rounded relationship, most likely due to Apatow’s razor sharp focus on dialogue and emotional progression. As tends to be the way with comedy directors these days, the formal elements that might make a man like Kaminski attractive come second to the story. The result visually is a mostly successful but relatively average looking film. But I’m happy to see Kaminski branching out at this point in his career. So nice of Spielberg to let him come out and play.

Close to the end of the film, after verbally berating Ira, George takes things below the belt and suggests maybe the young comedian should find something else to do with his life. “Comedy, usually, is for funny people.” It is a huge moment. As audience members, we know how to laugh, but what separates us from the comedians is knowing quite how to evoke that visceral reaction from the masses. In plain English, Apatow’s film explicitly explains what it is that separates the funny from the unfunny, yet we remain as confused by this dark art as we were before viewing Funny People. That we still also laugh for much of this moving piece's two and a half hours is evidence enough that we are willing to put it on faith that these people are, in fact, quite funny.

Author’s Note: This review is based on the theatrical release, so I can’t speak to the quality of the disc’s special features. After you see it, I recommend reading my friend Sunrise Tippeconnie’s reaction: Funny People [or how I learned to stop laughing and love the end]. I wouldn’t throw in a shameless plug if I didn’t find the reading incredibly enlightening. Happy surfing.

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Posted by cphillips at November 24, 2009 10:11 AM
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