Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Movie Review: Comedy in the service of story

It's surprising to me that Funny People is only the third film Judd Apatow has directed. He's produced no less than 16 movies in the last five years, many of them carrying his trademark mixture of unusually honest emotions and vulgar humor. The 40-Year-Old Virgin set the tone for a whole new generation of comedies. (I wasn't as big a fan of Knocked Up.) Funny People is his most ambitious movie yet. Much as the special effects in a good action movie serves the story, here the comedy serves the drama. There's always another layer beneath the jokes.

It's also an unpredictable movie. I warn you right now: Do not watch the extended trailer on; it more or less walks you through the entire plot! I had only seen a shorter trailer, and I was surprised at every turn. Funny People doesn't so much twist the plot as it twists entire genres. I didn't know how the movie was going to end because I couldn't even pigeon-hole it into a particular archetype![bxA]

Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a man who seems based on Sandler himself: a famous comedian who has starred in goofy comedies with titles like Merman. George finds out in the opening minutes that he has leukemia, but the movie is not really about him overcoming his disease with a little determination and the love of friends. (Genre-twist!) Meanwhile, Seth Rogen is Ira, an aspiring stand-up comedian with "frienemies" Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman) for roommates. George hires Ira as his assistant, and hijinks ensue.

George and Ira get to know each other, but it's not a typical buddy movie either; for one thing, they start out kind of liking each other, not hating each other. (Genre-twist!) There are romances involved as well; Ira meets fellow stand-up comic Daisy (the up-and-coming Aubrey Plaza, from "Parks and Recreation"), and George reconnects with his ex-wife Laura (Lesley Mann). Neither pair follows the typical romantic comedy plot outline. (Genre twist!) So, half-way through the movie, when a major event transpires unexpectedly, you have no idea what the plot structure of the movie is any more. You might have had some expectations, but they didn't pan out, and now you're not even sure what the movie is about!

After some pondering, I've decided that the structure of the film mirrors its characters, and therein lies the message. Both George and Ira get wrapped up in their expectations, but life is not always predictable, and sometimes you have to take a step back to understand it.

The casting was top-notch across the board, but the two leads made the movie. As with his role in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler shows that he's got quite a bit of depth with the right stories. He is at times sympathetic, despicable, hilarious, and pathetic. Seth Rogen plays a variation of his usual jovial character, but here, Ira is a bit less mature, a bit less lazy, and a bit more confused. He's never sure if he's doing the right thing, but his earnestness is infectious. Note the subtle expression on his face when he sees George's ex visit him at his show. That's a face you can relate to.

A couple of other scenes I feel a need to obliquely call out: Note the last thing Daisy says to Ira during their argument. That's the sort of brutal relatable honesty you see in few movies, let alone comedies. And my favorite genre-twist is the unusual variation on the Graduate toward the end. Even now, as I near the end of my review, there are still nuances of character motivations in that scene I have yet to unravel.

Funny People is not quite a masterpiece (mostly because it is a bit meandering and could have more clearly stated its theme), but it does cement Judd Apatow as one of the most important filmmakers of our generation. He already assured his place in history as a comedy producer, but here, as a director, he continues to push the frontiers of modern comedy.

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