Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sandler & Rogan Not Very Funny, Naturally

Sometimes a good performance is the only thing that can redeem an otherwise forgettable film. Judd Apatow has been fortunate to have had Steve Carell, Seth Rogen and now Adam Sandler to bail out his first three comedies, each twisting on a single, sexual punch line (virginity, pregnancy, and, I guess, sex—as one character puts it, “stupid guy stuff”).

Although the movie is wall-to-wall stupid guy stuff about emotions, career, love and sex, it’s funny how unfunny Funny People is. Fundamentally about the back-end world of stand-up comedy, it isn’t really about the funny things comedians say. In fact, Funny People is—ironically—rather dark and soul searching, in a sophomoric way, with star Adam Sandler’s George Simmons’ emotional pain and anguish masked by the 42-year-old director/writer’s fascination with the size and function of male genitalia and the fact that in 2009 you can use “dirty” words and graphic sexual references whenever you like in a movie. Quick aside: I’m teaching a course on cinema censorship this coming semester, so it’s so startling, intellectually, how far movies have pushed the boundaries of “propriety” for which Will Hays, Joe Breen and so many others fought for so many years – and not that many years ago, really.

I didn’t really like the film (about a comedy legend who upon getting a fatal medical diagnosis starts to deal with the entrails of his life). What I did like, though, was the way Apatow wrote Simmons and his assistant/joke writer/opening act, Ira Wright (Rogen). I liked how he directed Sandler and Rogen in the playing of them. Wading through the muck of “blue” language and sexual references (Simmons’ long lost love, Laura, urges him not to curse in his act, to which Simmons replies, “That takes out half my act”), the characters are trying to connect, and in so doing sound more natural than characters talking in most films. What distinguishes the dialogue is how Apatow laces his characters’ thick sexual bravado with a thin layer of vulnerability. And while Apatow felt compelled to drag out this film for nearly two-and-a-half hours, it did allow him and Sandler and Rogen to take their time revealing the conflict and confusion of their characters. The effect could be considered amateurish, but it's not; it just feels natural.

For example, there’s a long scene in a doctor’s office where Simmons is given the update on what appears to be a terminal disease. His his doctor, Dr. Lars, played by the 6 ft. 11” Torsten Voges, has a thick, Bavarian accent, and out of fear unspoken, Simmons mercilessly needles the guy.

Dr. Lars: It's too early to know who's winning the fight: the medicine or the disease. 

George Simmons: Did anybody ever tell you, you have a very scary accent? 

Dr. Lars: You are a very funny man. I enjoy your movies. 

George Simmons: And I enjoy all of your movies. 

Dr. Lars: [surprised] Which movies? 

George Simmons: The ones where you try to kill Bruce Willis. 

(Thanks, IMDB)

Voges plays his part just like doctors do; he knows he's getting put on, and why, but he maintains his professionalism, allowing his famous comedian patient to have some fun--under the circumstances. Even as Simmons picks up a sort of laconic head of steam, you can see sadness in Sandler’s eyes, just behind the mischievous twinkle as he pummels away, playfully amusing himself and Ira. The scene is too long, plot wise, but the effect is a real feeling of being there and being really embarrassed by the jackass you are with—who happens to be funny. In a sophomoric way.

Rogen's conflicted Ira Wright is positively stupid as he arrives at the international airport lounge to urge Laura not to break up her marriage to her globetrotting, philandering husband (played by the over-the-top Eric Bana). Ira has seen the shadows that still embrace his mentor and liking Laura, doesn't want her to miss them out of the blindness caused by a long lost love now found. But Wright is tongue tied and inarticulate and unsure about why he's doing what he’s doing, all the while seeing that he has blundered into and ruined a situation that was improving without his participation. But he's unable to stop himself. The result of his babbling is a fistfight on Laura’s lawn between her husband and George, which is pathetic as far as screen fights go, but that’s what makes it—and the scene before—so engaging. It's so natural and engaging for it's lack of polish.

Sandler, like Bill Murray, is best when he presses his outrageousness inward, allowing it to ooze out the edges of his performance. Older and thicker here, it’s funny how good he—and Rogen—made this middling movie.




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