Attempting to play catch up on the movies missed during my sojourn away from the U S of A, the only one I was able to catch before leaving cinemas was Judd Apatow’s latest, Funny People. Sorry Public Enemies and Bruno. There’s always DVD. Anyways, I thought I’d have more time to get to see this movie but sadly, it looked like it bombed out big time leaving my local theater a good 2 or 3 weeks after it came out.
To tell you the truth, I don’t really understand how it did so poorly. It is certainly a departure from the usual Apatow slacker coming to terms with adulthood comedy in so much as there’s as much drama as there is comedy to it. And it never provides simple, straightforward character arcs. The movie ends in the grey area that is basically life. That’s probably why it did so poorly. While, Funny People does have some great comedic moments, Apatow stretches his skill set out into a solid dramatic story, Adam Sandler playing basically a variation of himself coming to terms with a fatal disease and learning to appreciate life and come to terms with the mistakes of his past. Seth Rogen plays an up and coming comic hired to basically be Sandler’s friend and Leslie Mann plays the love of Sandler’s life that he wants to get back.
Overall, the film works pretty well. Sandler is fairly capable in dramatic roles as seen in movies like Punch Drunk Love or Spanglish and he maneuvers his way fine here. Of course, both of those movies play up many of the characteristics that he has refined throughout the years in his many average and below average sophomoric comedies over the years and the role here is not so much a stretch, playing the big deal movie star.
What I’ve heard said about the movie beforehand is that this is Apatow going the James L. Brooks territory mixing his comedic talents with a more dramatic sensibility. In that sense, the film works fine. But, unfortunately, that was also the problem. I was never wowed. The film is generally okay and surfs along smoothly right through the end. The first half is certainly funnier than the latter half where it almost becomes completely given over to the drama of what Sandler’s character is going through and how much he hasn’t really changed.
The film goes so far as to say people can’t change even when faced with life or death struggles. We are who we are and there’s a reason we did things before and we might do those things again. This is certainly not the Knocked Up model where the viewer remains absolutely certain in the goodness of each and every character. Here, characters are allowed to be incredibly flawed and almost despicable and yet, still people we’ll want to root for or relate to. There’s an amount of reality given over to the film that has always been just on the edges of his previous films.
In the end, I can see why it didn’t do so well. Mass audiences hate reality. They want comfort, easy to digest themes and characters. This film gives viewers an entertaining piece of reality and never condescends to its audience. It wears its heart on its sleeves and I think it paid the price for that at the box office. It’s unfortunate because it’s a really solid movie thrusting Apatow in a very new direction that would be quite interesting to see if he continues this way. In fact, now that I think about it, the film almost hearkens back to Apatow’s TV days, specifically, Freaks and Geeks. A great little show that had as much heart and drama as humor, Apatow’s little seen and swiftly cancelled NBC show shows a great skill in the kind of balancing act of laughs and drama. Bringing a little more of Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks sensibility to his work would not be a terrible thing at all.