#21 Funny People
I almost don’t want to comment on this movie because, since I saw this movie in theaters, I’ve been trying to remove it from my memory entirely.
Now, this movie is not that bad. But it’s not good, and it’s frustratingly not good, as what seems to be a good premise is combined with standout performances from both Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen into a movie that is somehow completely lousy at accomplishing any of the goals it sets out for itself.
I’ve been as stalwart a supporter of Judd Apatow as there’s been in the past few years, for several reasons:
A. His good movies – both movies he’s produced (Anchorman, Superbad) and directed (40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) are hilarious and incredibly rewatchable. If you were to list the Ten Best Comedies of the Last Ten Years, that list would include at least four Judd Apatow movies. In fact, let’s make that list (Apatow movies are marked with a *):
Best Comedies of the 2000s
- Old School
- Shaun Of The Dead
- The 40 Year Old Virgin*
- Wedding Crashers
- Napoleon Dynamite
- Meet The Parents
- Talledega Nights*
I’m sure everyone’s got favorites in there, as well as ones that they hated and feel shouldn’t be on the list, but just below these movies would go:
12. The Hangover
13. Team America: World Police
14. Tropic Thunder
15. School Of Rock
16. Knocked Up*
18. Step Brothers*
19. Road Trip
20. Van Wilder
All good comedies, but all clearly a slightly lower tier than the aforementioned movies. Either way, Apatow was involved in six of these 20 movies as either a director, writer, producer, or all three, and so he’s earned our good graces. I’m inclined to give him a pass.
B. Funny People was a failure of trying too hard, which is the sort of failure I appreciate. I hate sloppy filmmaking. I hate half-efforts, and poorly executed jokes. I hate seeing movies where the actors didn’t quite nail the bit, but the director moved on anyway. This movie was none of those things – everyone was clearly giving it their all, it just didn’t work out.
The problems with Funny People relate more to narrative momentum than anything else. No one in this movie is particularly likable – most noticeably Seth Rogen’s character, who really needs to be – and without anyone to root for, the whole movie just sits there, limply. There’s no interplay between a cold, closed-off Sandler and a warm, awkward Rogen, because the film makes them feel like they’re sort of the same person in different situations, which totally destroys the whole point of the movie. More damningly, Apatow forgets a key element of storytelling – he never creates a protagonist. Rogen and Sandler sort of share the protagonist’s load, each of them doing just enough to make you think the movie might be about them, and not quite enough where you don’t know which one you’re supposed to identify with.
People have knocked the film’s third act as the point where the movie derails. But the truth is that movie hadn’t actually built up enough speed to derail – it just chugs along, vaguely keeping our attention. The little engine that couldn’t. </train metaphor>
The problem is plot structure more than anything: Sandler’s efforts to win back his ex-girlfriend come too late in the story – almost two hours (!) into the movie. No one’s willing to start caring about a love story at that point in a film.
This pains me to say, but in a more capable director’s hands, this could have been a much better movie. But Apatow invested too much of himself in the movie – his wife plays the love interest, his kids play the children, his ex-roommate (Sandler) is the protagonist (maybe), and it’s loaded with videocassette footage that Apatow himself had shot – of Sandler back in the day, of his child’s performance of CATS, etc. He can’t see the difference between what’s actually moving and what’s merely moving to him.
If there’s a good way to fail, it’s this way: trying to go deeper, trying to make a comedy that’s more emotionally compelling than your average boner joke fare (though, wow, there are a lot of boner jokes in this movie). And that’s why I’m trying to pretend it never happened. Apatow’s earned the right to have us dwell on his successes rather than failures.