— by Jason Eaken —
I saw “Funny People” recently and I just can’t stop thinking about it.
It’s the latest movie from writer/director Judd Apatow, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll probably have to wait for DVD, because unfortunately it’s kind of come and gone in theaters.
Maybe it wasn’t the movie people expected when they heard Apatow, Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler were making a movie together. Maybe they saw the trailer and were turned off (most of that material isn’t even in the movie, either. Bad marketing team … bad).
Apatow’s third film is his longest, at about two and a half hours. It’s also his darkest, meanest, most grown-up and least crude movie. I don’t know if it is his best film — I like them all — but something has definitely changed. His other movies were simpler and more direct. I’m sure there was some improv, but I never got the sense that the movie was being put on hold to watch friends joke around. If it had, this thing would be four hours long.
Apatow has a penchant for writing male friendships, but until now, those friends have been aimless man-children and the movies have formed the path to adulthood. Here, he grows them up, and instead of six or seven, there are three ambitious friends, who are all trying to start careers in LA as actors or comedians. Kind of my place in life … RIGHT NOW.
To me, the movie is all about notions of success. Different kinds. Different ways to get it. How are you supposed to feel when your friend is the lead on a sitcom? Do you hate him for the success, are you proud of him, do you try to get a guest spot on there? How do those feelings change if the show isn’t any good?
Jason Schwartzman’s character is the sitcom star. He leaves his paycheck stubs around, he blabs about wanting a role in the new Tobey Maguire movie, he’s just realized he may be just successful enough for women to throw themselves at him. In many ways, Schwartzman’s is an early version of the Adam Sandler character, who has done countless awful-looking comedies because they pay, and has become as egomaniacal as he is lonely. There are a couple of moments where both characters show someone their work, and no one is laughing. Sandler has stopped caring, he knows it’s just a paycheck, but Schwartzman tries to play it off and makes excuses for it.
Then, there’s Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, trying to make it as stand-up comics. They do gigs for free, they just want to be recognized, they want some small inkling of success to get them by. Rogen seizes the opportunity to write jokes for the Sandler character, Jonah Hill jumps at the chance to be on his friend’s lame sitcom.
At dinner, before we went to see the movie, my roommate Adam and I were talking about the downfall of Charlie Sheen, and the sad reality that more people watch “Two and a Half Men” (which is like a real version of “Yo Teach!”) than “The Office” or “30 Rock.” I asked, “What would we do if someone wanted to hire us to write for “Two and a Half Men”? Because we’re nobody and we just want to get our foot in the door, wouldn’t we take it? Isn’t that what you do? You write or direct or act in or get on-set of anything you can stomach, hoping to get far enough to do the things you really want to do.
In 2008’s Apatow-produced “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Jason Segal was doing music for a CSI type show and the titular character talked about doing movies that were the “right move” for her career. Even the Tina Fey character on “30 Rock” has a past where she was one of the ladies of the night, advertising for a phone-sex hotline.
The list could go on forever, because among TV and movies that deal with this idea, there are always horror stories of how people got their foot in the door. It’s a string of unfulfilling prospects until you find your break. IF you get a break. It’s not guaranteed. And the question is, how are you supposed to be proud of yourself doing this, particularly when this may be all you ever do?
One side says you have a job and at least attempt to bring something to it. Therefore, you should be happy with yourself. The other side says that it can be a fool’s errand, buying exclusively into the business side of what you used to do because it made you happy and wanted to do because you felt you should.
I go back and forth with these competing notions, and maybe the reality is somewhere in between. But the fact is, I’m not even in a position right now where I can figure it out. “Funny People” is sort of about all of these things and different stages of success, embodied by different people. Sandler’s character has lost something, and the movie traces his attempts to get it back, from his health, to his career, to the woman he loves.
In the credits for the film, Paul Thomas Anderson is thanked. I learned that during the editing process, Apatow brought in a few directors to get their input, among them Anderson (who directed Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love”) and James L. Brooks (who directed Sandler in “Spanglish”). It shows.
Perhaps Brooks helped him balance the personal drama of the final act with the film’s comedic sensibility? And though it is pure conjecture, it’s not ridiculous to assume that P.T. Anderson helped him with one of the most surprising aspects of the film: its meanness. Many of Andersons’s characters have an edge to them that is painful, hurtful and hilarious all at once.
Think of how much verbal abuse Rogen’s character takes from Sandler. This isn’t the light-hearted ribbing from “Knocked Up,” there is a real darkness and cynicism to this character that was fascinating to see, particularly because of how nice Sandler is in real life. For me, this was like a warning. The character isn’t mean because of his fame. He’s mean because he was a mean person to begin with. Becoming rich and famous just gave him a lifelong excuse not to change.
This is one of Sandler’s best performances, and it isn’t all negative. He modulates his anger with actually caring for one or two people, and he does respond when something is genuinely funny. And in maybe Apatow’s most brilliant and surprising move, the film begins with old home videos of Sandler doing funny voices and prank-calling people. Reminds you why you have to like Adam Sandler, even if it’s in spite of yourself, even when he makes bad movies. Luckily, this is one of the good ones.
Jason Eaken is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EAKEN.