They say that art lies in taking something very personal and making it universal. Or whatever. The idea is that in exploring life as you understand it, from your own unique perspective, you actually find a way to relate to lots of other people who have their own experiences, and this interchange of thoughts and ideas allows everyone to feel interconnected, part of something big and important, at the very least to feel less alone in the world. We share enough common experiences that the larger themes will be evident and meaningful and open to individual interpretation, and the smaller, individual observations provide the charm, insight, and intangible quality of realism. “You can’t make this stuff up,” etc. And in that sense, Judd Apatow did everything right. He made a very personal film, and held faith as all creative people must that what was interesting to him would be interesting to other people.
Except this time not so much.
At the very least, I think Funny People was a noble failure. I respect what Apatow wanted to do. So many things about this movie could have been really smart and funny and interesting. Somehow they just weren’t, though. And you can respect something in one hand and wish in the other and see which gives this movie the thumbs down first, because in the end a noble failure is still a failure.
So what went wrong?
Well, for one thing, this movie was too long! I own the extended edition DVDs of Lord of the Rings, and I’ve read Infinite Jest (the two best examples of things that require patience), but come on! And it was only made worse by the dramatic deflation of having seen the trailers. I’m not sure how they could have marketed this movie differently, but if you know that he’s going to get better eventually, then the hour-plus that he’s sick loses a lot of its tension and dramatic impact. We already know what’s going to happen, so having to sit around for a really long time to get to the part where we don’t know what’s going to happen (whether or not he will get the girl, which in itself has much lower stakes than whether or not he’s going to die, so it’s actually a double-dramatic-deflation) is just a drag. “Is he better yet?” No. “Is he better yet?” No. “Is he better yet?” No, do you want me to turn this movie around and go home? “Kind of.”
Then there is the problem that even for a serious-ish movie that is more about the pains of aging, the fragility of life, the price of fame, and the tenuousness of happiness than it is about stand up comedy or dick jokes, this movie was really not funny. I recognize that Funny People is actually a play on words, like, they’re ha-ha funny, but they’re also broken funny, and a third even subtler, more basic twist on audience expectations who might somehow go into this movie without having any idea what it was supposed to be about, and then sort of a fourth over-arching idea that funny people are still people and that it is the people part of them that is what ends up being important. But, uh, still. I laughed three times during two-and-a-half hours. That is a very low ratio. And most of those jokes were in one of the trailers (again with the trailers and the ruining of things). The biggest laugh from the audience in the theater where I saw the movie was when James Taylor appeared on the screen? Bad sign. The stuff with the doctor was funny, the Deer Hunter joke was funny, and Jonah Hill is really good at being Jonah Hill. I think my biggest laugh, besides when James Taylor came on screen (?), was when Jonah Hill told Seth Rogen that he wanted to put Seth’s glasses on Seth’s back so that it looked like Seth was blowing him while he fucked Seth in the ass. That was my biggest laugh!?! What a weird joke! My favorite scene of the whole movie was the Eminem cameo, which was weird and ridiculous, but also funny and surprising, and mean spirited and dark and miserable. That scene was what the whole movie strived to be.
And the second half of the movie, after Adam Sandler got better, was where things started getting really weird. It is one thing when Judd Apatow casts his wife and daughters as tertiary characters in an ensemble cast, but when they represent the ideal family? No offense: Leslie Mann is beautiful, and a talented actress, and the children are adorable. I am sure that they actually ARE the ideal family. But relax, Judd Apatow. No one thinks that you don’t have a nice little life going for yourself, you don’t have to be a dick about it.
Judd Apatow was on Fresh Air last week and he talked about using the videotape of his daughter’s performance of “Memory” from Cats in the movie, and how this scene was supposed to demonstrate how emotionally immature Adam Sandler was. Because who wouldn’t be moved by Judd Apatow’s daughter singing “Memory” from Cats? Well, a lot of people. Because she’s not our daughter, Judd Apatow. Later in the movie Adam Sandler says that he saw Cats on Broadway and it was better. True! Millions of people could easily be unmoved by that. Perhaps if I somehow managed to Being John Malkovich myself into Judd Aptow’s body and see the movie again, it might have more resonance for me. But I can’t. So it probably won’t.
I really wanted this movie to be good. I was ready for a dark, mostly serious movie, with bright spots of smart comedy. What I got instead was a spoof of Citizen Kane starring Adam Sandler as an emotionally uglier Adam Sandler (although still with classic Adam Sandler baby voices) where the elusive Rosebud turns out to be Judd Apatow’s life.
But I saw Citizen Kane on Broadway and it was better.