Friday, July 31, 2009

Funny People

"Dying is easy, comedy is hard." George Bernard's famous quote is turned upside down by Judd Apatow in his return to the director's chair. After the success of Knocked Up, Apatow took some time off to produce a gaggle of films for friends and proteges. Some worked (Saving Sarah Marshall, Super Bad), and others were Drillbit Taylor.

For a man who has had such an influence on the style of the current comedy landscape, Apatow has directed surprisingly few films (just three). And although all are worth watching, there has been a slight dip in quality with each release.

His latest takes on a life event and its unforseen consequences (much like Knocked Up). In Knocked Up, Apatow chose an event (unintended pregnancy), that though scary, was also shown in a mostly positive light. The situation, while not always funny for the characters themselves, was easily made fun of.

This time, Apatow chooses to merge his comedy with a character facing a debilitating disease and death. Doesn't quite have that same comic zing, does it?

Celebrity funnyman George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a very rich, and very lonely, man. The discovery of a rare blood disease sends the comedian in search of meaning and an attempt to relive the best moments of his life. As most of these occurred on stage in smoky comedy clubs before garnering his fame, this is where he chooses to return. A chance encounter with struggling comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) who befriends his idol, leads to a job for Ira writing jokes and working as George's assistant.

At times, Funny People is reminiscent of The Bucket List, and there are times when it takes the harsh reality of Geroge's condition seriously (though never for long when a good dick joke can be used to break up the tension). The project also gives us eerily familiar scenes of the oeuvre including the necessary crass buddy scenes discussing sex and joking around with mutual put-downs. Had Paul Rudd and Jason Segel's characters from The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up respectively suddenly appeared, they would not be out of place. This time the bro-crew is staffed by Jonah Hill, as Ira's slightly more successful roommate, and Jason Schwartzman, as Ira's other more successful roommate, complete with a starring role on his own sitcom.

Apatow knows his funny, and how to deliver jokes both cheap and clever. The title of the film is indeed apt. This is a group of funny, funny people. Where the film gets into trouble is when it tries to merge the darker, and more grown-up dramatic elements of the story with the random bits and jokes. The film includes several jokes at Hollywood's expense, including several mentions of George's big movie hits (such as "Merman"), and the popular and intensely unfunny television show Schwarzman's character stars in, appropriately titled "Yo Teach...!"

Speaking of roommates, the project reunites Apatow with his real-life former roommate, Adam Sandler. This turns out to be a mixed blessing. In many ways, Apatow is able to tailor a role specifically to the strengths of his longtime friend, and this allows the director to work footage of Sandler that was taken two decades ago into the film. At the same time, the movie becomes locked onto George and too often steers itself away from Seth Rogen's Ira - the only likable character in the film (and, perhaps not coincidentially, the character loosely based off the writer himself in this semi-autobiographical piece).

The relationship between George and Ira is the meat of the movie, but sadly Apatow isn't comfortable enough focusing only on this dynamic and has to throw a former flame (played by Leslie Mann) into the mix. This wouldn't be so bad, but the film is hijacked for about 30 minutes and becomes a romantic comedy. Only in the film's final moments is the true relationship returned to. I understand Apatow's problem. Once Mann's character is introduced and George's feelings resurface, the only two options are to lightly touch on it and move on or spend an inordinate of time dealing with the consequences of the renewed relationship. I'll give the writer/director credit for not shirking the dramatic consequences of the renewed relationship, but the film bogs down much too much during this stretch.

Although much of the humor works, some of it has that uncomfortable Family Guy feel where the writing doesn't know when to stop and trust the joke, and instead kicks a very bloody dead horse. Whether its in the the stand-up routine or the doctor with the Die Hard accent, there are moments when Apatow allows Sandler to go on for far too long.

Funny People isn't a great film, nor is it a must-see, but it is a very enjoyable and sometimes very funny film with a few jokes that will stay with you. It's also an important step forward for Apatow growing as both a director and writer in his attempt to tell more serious tales. It's certainly a flawed film, and at least 30 minutes too long, but Apatow fans will get what they've paid to see and should leave with a smile.

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer isn't your typical date movie. In fact, in many ways it's almost an anti-date film. Through the eyes of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon Levitt) we are shown the ups and downs of his relationship with Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). Those couples looking for a fun romantic evening should choose this one only if they're very comfortable and confident in their relationship. Otherwise the evening might turn a little more uncomfortable than what you planned.

Rather than giving us a linear look the script, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, jumps through the timeline of the relationship for maximum effect. Sometimes this provides hilarious juxtaposition, and at other moments you're allowed to feel Tom's pain. To help you follow the timeline title cards and narration (provided by Jean-Paul Vignon) are provided.

Without a doubt it's the cutest film about a doomed relationship I've ever seen. Those who have been involved in love affairs where one side feels more passionately than the other will no doubt understand and empathize with Tom's plight.

There's much to enjoy here. Gordon-Levitt is well cast and has a knack for both the early relationship awkwardness and the later despondency of Tom. Deschanel is once again cast as the outwardly charming indie love interest she does so well.

Although very strong, the film doesn't quite reach the levels of greatness to which it aspires. One issue is the character of Summer who we view only through Tom's eyes. Through much of the film the audience never really gets to know her. It's only at the end when a harsh light is shone on the relationship that we finally get a clear picture of the two characters and the reasons for their parting of ways.

There are some nice supporting performances, my favorite being young Chloe Moretz as Tom's much younger, but much wiser, sister. The interplay between the two provides some of the best jokes of the film and some necessary perspective on the relationship.

I know there were people at the screening I attended who enjoyed the film more than I did, and although I liked it, I couldn't shake the feeling I was watching a lesser Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind without the more interesting sci-fi elements.

Without giving too much away, if I have a major criticism its with the film's final act which cements how I felt about both Tom and Summer. I also felt uncomfortable with a late scene which sole purpose seemed to be to soften an unseen blow and makes us feel better about the outcome of the film. However, I will admit to enjoying the final joke of the film which, although a bit too cute, does get a deserved chuckle or two.

(500) Days of Summer will provide you with an interesting evening, a few laughs, and perhaps some thoughts on past and present relationships. It's not a film I would return to often, but it's an easy recommendation to make.