Note- This article is reprinted from my old blog, August 2009. But, I recently turned my Netflix back on and was watching a ton of The Larry Sanders Show. I kept seeing Judd Apatow’s name in the credits, caught a few of the following films on cable and re-read this piece, deciding to post it again, with a few minor edits. Also, I’m incredibly critical of myself and like most writers, think that my best work is behind me.
Funny People is a movie that, like it’s main characters, is in search of itself. It’s not outright hilarious or as vulgar as previous Apatow releases to be an outright comedy, but there are plenty of poignant moments and a lot of brutal honesty in it as well. Basically, there is not enough of either one to overwhelm the movie, which leaves is slightly underwhelming, a fine performance from Rogen aside. Of course, going into the film, I did not hold any high expectations because over the past few weeks leading up to the release, I’ve developed a theory that the best Apatow movies are NOT the movies that Apatow directs.
Let’s review some quick facts. Yes, he did write for the brilliant Larry Sanders Show, as well as creating both Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. But, he also has credits for Celtic Pride, Fun with Dick and Jane and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. He has produced Anchorman, SuperBad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express while also producing Drillbit Taylor, Talladega Nights and Walk Hard. Some of those movies are flat out brilliant and some of them are flat out shit. But, the films directed by Apatow himself, 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People strike the line somewhere in between. Never mind that each one of them runs about thirty minutes too long, but for me, they never seem to find the balance that some of the other movies (or even Freaks and Geeks) can.Apatow’s instinct for what is funny is razor sharp, but what fails him in features is how to make people care once they stop laughing. Apatow directs films not like Mel Brooks or Woody Allen or even Christopher Guest. It’s clear with Funny People that Apatow is trying to make films more like James L. Brooks, (Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets, Spanglish) than any other contemporary comedy writer/director.
For a prime example, 40 Year Old Virgin and SuperBad are both movies about male sexual awakenings (as is Adventureland, but more on that later.) While the protagonists of SuperBad are adolescents and in Virgin, merely adults acting like teenagers, they all fall into the classic male stereotypes of objectifying women and minimizing their selves in order to become more likable. But, lessons can be learned from the trio in SuperBad and they are valuable life lessons. The boys learn that you don’t have to get a girl drunk for her to like you (Seth), you don’t have to take advantage of a girl (Evan) and simple confidence can get you over with the fairer sex (McLovin). Those lessons are painted in much broader strokes in Virgin and to more comical effect than in SuperBad. But, they are learned by all the characters in SuperBad and just generally addressed at the climax (pun unavoidable) of Virgin.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall was one of my favorite films from last year, for the simple fact that the characters were so terrifically written that none of them turned out to be the villain of the piece. Both Sarah Marshall and Aldous Snow become real people who you can understand and relate to by the end, where even Peter thinks that Aldous is a cool guy. When Sarah puts Peter in his place and explains how hard she tried to make their relationship work, it brings an understanding and reconciliation to the relationship that you normally don’t see in most movies, particularly Virgin or Knocked Up. It grounds the movie in reality and can force you to examine your own relationships as it did for both myself and my best friend when we went to see it. A movie like this one or SuperBad can make you sit back and say, “That’s just like my life,” but you would be hard pressed to say that for Virgin, Knocked Up or Funny People.
I’ll be honest and just say my main beef with Apatow’s films is that they are never the movies I want to see. In Virgin, I want to see the movie about Rogen and Rudd and the crew at Smart Tech instead of watching Steve Carell date Catherine Keener. And when I got Knocked Up, it wasn’t the movie about Rogen and Rudd or his friends, but the movie about Mann and Heigl and how they emasculate their men. It’s a switch and bait move that gets more tired with every movie he makes, but that films like Pineapple Express (stoner action) or Walk Hard (biopic satire) never give into. I Love You, Man and Role Models (neither which were associated with Apatow) were the Rudd movies that I wanted to see, without any extraneous, wandering subplot to take away from the main characters. They delivered exactly what they promised you, a bromantic comedy and a raunchy movie with cursing kids and gratuitous nudity. With Funny People, I want to see the movie about Rogen and Sandler and Hill and the rest of the comedians, but that’s not the movie we’re given. It’s a movie that’s light on the funny and heavy on the drama and altogether depressing.
I said I would talk more about Adventureland (again not affiliated with Apatow, simply ‘from the director of SuperBad‘) and all I can say is that it is probably the best films out of any of the ones mentioned above. With great performances and writing, it finds the fine line between the comedy and drama that the others seek, while delivering something rarely seen in cinema. I’m not referring to Ryan Reynolds actually acting, but realistically portrayed teenage characters in a heart felt drama without an abundance of raunchy humor or low brow jokes. Much has been made about how the current crop of teen movies were inspired or derived from the works of John Hughes and Adventureland comes furthest in pushing that special blend of humor and emotion to connect with an audience. Grossly unappreciated by audiences, Adventureland was a rare gem this spring upon it’s release and I implore anyone who hasn’t seen it to check it out. You’ll find a film that plays with your expectations, then surpasses them.