“Funny People” – Making Hard Choices Easy

August 15, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“We make extremely right-wing movies with extremely filthy dialogue.” Seth Rogen was talking about “Knocked Up,” and by “we” he meant the Judd Apatow repertory company.

Ross Douthat, the New York Times’s new right-wing columnist, included the quote in his op-ed on Apatow’s most recent film “Funny People.” According to Douthat this movie is more “grown-up” and “realistic” in its family values. “Doing the right thing comes harder.”

I saw a movie called “Funny People” last week, but it must not have been the same one Douthat saw. The one I saw twisted itself out of shape to make doing the right thing come easy.

Spoiler alert: I’m going to reveal the plot and ending,

George (Adam Sandler) is a very successful comedian who contracts a potentially deadly disease but then, miraculously, recovers. When he thinks he’s facing death he phones his ex-girlfriend Laura, who left him twelve years earlier because he was cheating on her. She is now a wife and mother. He realizes that he messed up back then and wants to rewind the tape.

She comes to visit, and later, when George is healthy again, he goes to see her in her Marin County home (her husband is, as usual, out of town). Both meetings show that they still love one another and that they still have a certain something. George wants her to break up her marriage and be with him.

The conservative message comes at the end, when Laura is faced with a family-values dilemma: should she leave her husband and get back together with George?

At first, the film tips the scales towards divorce. She and George still have that chemistry, and besides, her husband isn’t much of a husband. He’s macho-obnoxious and frequently out of the country on business. And he cheats on her.

Whichever she chooses, love or family, she will lose something. If she stays with her husband, she will lose George’s love, humor, etc. If she chooses happiness with George, she will lose her family; her children will suffer as well.

It’s a real dilemma, a grown-up problem. True love or family. You can’t have it both ways. But wait.

American movies and television have a long tradition of presenting a real problems and then conjuring up magical solutions. It’s called “the Hollywood ending.” “Funny People” is no exception. At first, Laura decides to split from her husband and go with George. But no sooner does she nod in his direction than he is suddenly transformed, and not for the better. Five minutes ago, he delighted in playing silly games on the floor with her kids and dogs; now he can barely bring himself to stay in the same room with them. Before, he was attentive to every nuance of Laura’s feelings. Now, he ignores her, flipping open his cellphone to read text messages about movie deals and money.

Her husband has a similar transformation though in the opposite direction, renouncing his extramarital affairs (just two), vowing to get a job that will keep him close to his family, and declaring his love and devotion to his wife. Surprise, surprise – she decides to stay with her husband.

See, the decision only appeared to be a hard one. In the end, doing the right thing brings no sacrifice at all.

The real cheating in this film is not men’s infidelity to women; it’s the director Apatow’s infidelity to the story he himself has created.

This is not a perfect film. The “lonely at the top” theme is a bit of a cliche. The movie is long, nearly 2½ hours, because it tries to paste together three different movies: the ex-girlfriend dilemma; George facing death; Ira (Seth Rogen) the virtuous, innocent schnook, hanging around with the super-successful George.

But the movie is often funny, and it’s at its best when it’s about comedy. It makes you appreciate how difficult stand-up is, with its strange relationship between performer and audience. The key to success is not to tell a funny joke but to capture the audience. The same jokes that seem lame when done by an unseasoned, aspiring performer (Rogen) become good material in the hands of a pro like George, partly because of his ability, his craft, but also because the audience is already on his side. The film also shows how much these comedians rely on “dick jokes,” which don’t bring much admiration from colleagues but can get laughs, especially with unsophisticated audiences.

And then there’s James Taylor, whose two spoken lines in the film (he also sings one song) are hilarious – playing completely against his usual persona.

1 comment:

trrish said...

Ok, now I know I have to see it. I thought so, but wasn't sure if I would wait for the DVD or not. And frankly, knowing she stays with her family will make it much more fun for me.