Monday, August 17, 2009

Funny People

They say the third movie is always the worst, and yes, if you choose to view The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Judd Apatow's newest directorial effort as a trilogy, Funny People is indisputably the weakest, hands down. But of course, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up (along with other Apatow productions like Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall) are among my favorite movies of their respective years and my favorite comedies of the decade, so kind of that's kind of praising with faint damn. Despite being messy, bloated, and even rambling in spots, Funny People ultimately has enough warmth and humor to recommend... if you have patience with long movies, that is.

As anyone who's seen the asinine, give-the-whole-fucking-movie-away trailer knows, the film is about a terminally ill comedy superstar played by Adam Sandler who recruits young, amateur comedian Seth Rogen to be his assistant, warm-up act, joke writer, and general hired help. This is an unusual combination of the best and worst of modern comedy stars (I know there's typical Internet backlash against Rogen, but I still love him, especially after Observe and Report), but Apatow is able to reign Sandler back to give an understated — arguably a little too understated — performance, delivering funny banter but also reflecting a quiet sadness when called for. His character is a little bit of a jerk, which Sandler plays disconcertingly well, almost to point his nastiness occasionally makes him unpleasant to watch.

Jonah Hill, as usual, guest stars as Rogen's roommate and is profane and rude and funny, but the movie is actually stolen by Jason Schwartzman as Rogen's other, far more successful roommate, who gives a hysterically mellow, laid-back performance and fits seamlessly into the Apatowverse. And thank Vishnu, because despite starring Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider blissfully makes no guest appearance. Actually, that might have worked, because Rob Schneider is perhaps the only thing that a terminal disease is hilarious in comparison to.

But the movie's real problem is pure bloat. This is a hefty, incredibly ambitious film, strained to breaking point with what feels like dozens of subplots and wildly extended sequences both comedic and dramatic that give dimension to characters but don't enhance the plot one bit. Most egregious is a painfully (and on movie discussion websites, already infamously) protracted third act venture where Sandler tries to win back his old girlfriend that introduces a ton of new characters, leaves most the ones we've gotten to know behind, and threatens to drag the movie down kamikaze-style. What should have gone on for fifteen brisk and funny minutes goes on for a squirm-and-check-your-watch-inducing forty.

Apatow really, really wants this to be a genuinely great film, his best ever, maybe even a Best Picture contender, but he misaims, substituting too many shallowly-sketched characters and subplots where he needs a few great ones. After all, I don't remember a million characters and subplots in No Country for Old Men. I think Apatow may have unfortunately become powerful to the point where no one is willing to say "no" to him and he pretty much has free, unfiltered artistic reign, something that in the past has led to the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the grotesque bloat of the later Harry Potter books, Aaron Sorkin's awful TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and of course M. Night Shyamalan's descent into fucking nonsense. Surrounding yourself with yes men yields tragedy nearly 100% of the time.

But don't think I'm fully down on this film. One thing Judd Apatow is quite possibly the contemporary master of is making guys just hanging out and having a conversation hysterical (I think it's safe to say that Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen's "You know how I know you're gay?" duel is the most famous part of The 40-Year-Old Virgin), and Funny People is consistently hilarious when the three roommates — Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Jason Schwartzman — are just shooting the shit, especially a scene where Hill lambasts Rogen for his recent weight loss, brilliantly summarizing that "There's nothing funny about a physically fit man. No one wants to watch Lance Armstrong do comedy." Three roommates is also a much more narratively manageable number than the five roommates from Knocked Up, perhaps the singular example of Funny People keeping things under control. The movie also has a few great stand-up comedy sequences and some sharp and amusing parody of shitty network sitcoms and terrible high-concept Adam Sandler comedies, but hanging out is where it excels.

Hereby, I propose my theory that Judd Apatow's fourth movie should just do away with plot entirely. It will be called Hanging Out, and it is just about Seth Rogen and four or five other Apatow regulars hanging out in a house and talking and insulting each other for two hours. They can get into arguments and stuff, but that's all the plot it needs. Surefire hit, in my humble opinion.

3 Stars out of 5

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