Funny People got no reason to smile

Funny People has lost some steam now, but we had some free passes, and I liked the trailer. Despite not being much of a Sandler fan outside of Punch-Drunk Love, I thought I’d give him a chance. He’s pretty good here, but the script is about a half hour too long and feels like an Apatow version of The Royal Tenenbaums‘ basic premise at times. I enjoyed the first 90 minutes thoroughly, but kept looking at my watch once the second act rug-yank occurs. Oh, you’ll laugh a lot. The film lives up to its title, but Apatow’s third film as director shows little growth. He’s gone from virgin to father to dying, but still has an undescended testicle.
I thought Seth Rogen showed some good range as an actor in this one, and while playing a young comedian looking for his break isn’t a big stretch for the new star, he nails it and never feels like he’s playing himself. Adam Sandler tries really hard to not be Adam Sandler, but it’s obvious the part was written for him. He does a very good job with it, but it takes a long time for any depth to come to his character. The faults are with the screenplay, which takes an interesting premise- what does a famous comedian do when faced with death- and turns into a different movie by the end. I was enjoying the idea of George Simmons, the multimillionaire comedian turned actor who learns he has an 8% chance of surviving the year. He’s lonely at the top, has made many mistakes and lives alone in a big house with the occasional starfucker he has limo’d out in the morning. When he shows up at an improv club and goes before a struggling young comic named Ira (Rogen), he likes how the “kid” reacts to this turn of bad luck and takes him on as a writer. And then, an assistant.

The film shines during the scenes of comedians in their natural habitat. Ira lives with a successful up and coming comedian named Leo (Jonah Hill) and one whose already transitioned to a popular but lame TV show (Jason Schwartzman) and it’s very entertaining watching them riff off one another. We get a lot of cameos once Simmons lets people know about his illness, everyone from Paul Reiser and Charles Fleischer (more famous for voicing Roger Rabbit nowadays, but his stand up act is hilarious) to Norm Macdonald, Dave Atell and Sarah Silverman show up. They act like we imagine comedians would act around each other, a zillion laughs a minute. How true it is I don’t know, but it has that veneer of realism. We only get hints at the pain behind the need to make people laugh. One of the first things George asks Ira about is his childhood; his parents are divorced, George says he never could make his father laugh. When he does make his father laugh, it’s almost an afterthought.
The last 30 minutes of the movie are about George trying to get with the love of his life, Judd Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann. I like her a lot- she was great in Knocked Up– but this storyline feels almost tacked on to give Judd’s family screentime. His kids play the kids too. They were also in Knocked Up, and they’re still cute and not annoying. But it’s the kind of thing that gets distracting when you do it twice. Also, it seems like a movie in itself, jammed into a half hour, where Eric Bana and Adam Sandler vie for her affections. Ira does play the part of a child of divorce, trying to stop George from breaking up a family, but it doesn’t have the comfortable feel the first two acts had. We’ve seen comics deal with death in Man on the Moon, Memories of Me and Tribute, but it would have been worth exploring again. Instead, we get a more familiar story about a jerk who learns he’s a jerk, and tries to stop being a jerk. Scent of a Comedian? I wasn’t expecting The King of Comedy either, but he flirts with the competitiveness of comics, the pain behind the laughs, the need to be loved taken to its celebrity extreme, and does nothing with it.
Just as the Director’s Cut of 40 Year Old Virgin loses the tight pacing and meanders, this comes pre-extended. I don’t want to know what the DVD with extra footage will be like. I’ve read that Aziz Ansari, who plays a comedian who jumps around a lot and says boy-eeee and generally acts like a caricature of a suburban white boy rapper fan, will be getting a starring role to explore this character. Russell Brand will also reprise his role from Forgetting Sarah Marshall as the pop singer, with Jonah Hill as his wrangler. Apatowland is starting to feel like SNL, spinning off of itself. I’d rather see Aubrey Plaza get some more work. This was a good, if not great movie but it was in dire need of an editor, or perhaps even a rewrite of Act III. Sometimes you see people who’ve impressed you begin to fail because no one has the balls to tell them something’s not working, and they’ve lost that self-doubt that makes you strive to improve. They mock this in the movie with Simmons’s acting career, but it happens with directors too. The guy who gave us Stripes and Ghostbusters? His last movie was My Super-Ex-Girlfriend.

Pineapple Express

What if Terence Malick decided to make a stoner action comedy? Well, that didn’t happen. But David Gordon Green, a director heavily influenced by him, who made the excellent and acclaimed George Washington, has done so. Under the auspices of producer Judd Apatow, the film still has the frenetic buddy comedy framework of The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but has the unique look of David Gordon Green’s movies, and the loving setting of depressed urban backdrops behind the hilarious character-based comedy dealt out by Seth Rogan, James Franco, and Danny McBride.

The plot is simple- Seth Rogan plays Dale, a process server who’s also a hardcore pothead, who drives around down serving subpoenas and toking all day (And thankfully, this Judd Apatow movie has subpoenas and no gratuitous “poenas”). After he picks up some new Hawaiian weed from his dealer Saul, he goes to serve a subpoena on someone and sees a murder, and ends up running from the killers for the rest of the movie. It’s that simple. Of course he heads back to Saul’s place to hide and the buddy movie begins, with Rogan playing a slightly more jumpy version of his usual film persona and James Franco giving the best slurring stoner with hilarious epiphanies since Brad Pitt sat on the couch with a honey bear bong in True Romance. He manages to craft a character I hadn’t seen him play before, but I’m told is not a far cry from work he did with Rogan in “Freaks & Geeks.” They have great chemistry together and that is what makes the film- against the backdrop of cinematographer Tim Orr’s visuals- rise above the pack.


The rest of the cast include familiar faces like the creepy guy and the violent guy from the party in Superbad, the doorman from Knocked Up, and Danny McBride in one of his funniest roles as a middleman dealer named Red. McBride has been in both Apatow flicks (Drillbit Taylor) and David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls), and his own film which didn’t get great distribution, The Foot Fist Way (it comes to DVD at the end of September). Plus we have Lumberg from Office Space as the bad guy, Rosie Perez as a crooked cop, and Ed Begley Jr. in his best role in years as Dale’s girlfriend’s Dad.

Drug movies can be hit or miss; while Saul and Dale are high out of their minds for much of the film, their bumbling stupidity while sober keeps the comic energy flowing. The infamous car chase, definitely funnier than Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny‘s, rivals those of the Arkin-Falk classic The In-laws. Once again, Seth Rogan crafts a hilarious screenplay that feels like a late-’70s/early ’80s romp updated. The third act, which follows the buddy cop formula so closely that it reminded me of the first Lethal Weapon, and definitely knows it- there’s a shot where someone gets caught in a ju-jitsu triangle choke just like how Riggs kills the torturer.
Pineapple Express keeps the humor full on even as people get shot left and right while dodging through hydroponic pot gardens, and never gets serious even when we think it will. I enjoyed that more than the typical comedy script that turns dramatic to pull heartstrings; we have emotion invested in Dale, Red and Saul by the end of the movie and we don’t need a tearful interlude to force it. Rogan’s script and Green’s direction are smart enough to know this and veer away from formula in this regard. For a film geek, it was great seeing Green’s Malick-esque shots of the boys cavorting in the woods, or seeing iconic neighborhood people in the corners as they talk on grimy payphones. I didn’t think it was as funny as Superbad or as thrilling as Lethal Weapon, but it was engaging as hell to see the stoner buddy comedy get tossed with the buddy action film plot in a way we haven’t seen since the Cheech & Chong movies, and done so much better.

3.5 tokes out of 4, and don’t Bogart it, dude.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Sometime in the mid-80’s, we lost the concept of the Gratuitous Breast. I blame Reagan. Oddly enough, the Clinton years didn’t bring a resurgence to their vivacious jigglitude, and now in the Noughts we have been given the Gratuitous Penis instead. And all I have to say is, girls, enjoy it while it lasts. Borat gave us a hairy and frightening display, and then in Walk Hard we had a bunch of eye-level wangs to contend with, for laughs I assume. At that point Judd Apatow claimed that every future project would have a dangling dingus, and in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, it’s in the opening scene.

Slap-happy Segel

In this hilarious comedy written by Jason Segel, he also stars as the Peter, boyfriend of a TV star on a CSI-alike show called Crime Scene (Kristen Bell). Well, not for long; he’s the composer for the show, and his days mostly consist of sitting in front of the boob tube in sweatpants eating Froot Loops from a huge bowl. She calls because she’s coming home early, and he rushes to clean up and shower, and gets the break-up news shortly after giving his girlfriend that favorite of male greetings, the weenie-wagging towel flash.

The hard to forget Sarah Marshall

Seeing a big soft freckled doofus cry naked is a lot funnier than it sounds, and they get a lot of mileage out of it. He does the requisite moping in his apartment, and then goes out with his acerbic stepbrother (the hilarious Bill Hader) to try to fuck the ex out of his system. Nothing is working, and he sees her face platered over billboards and tabloid shows, with her new boyfriend the British pop singer Aldous (Russell Brand). So he decides to go to Hawaii; he was supposed to go there with her someday, but he figures the vacation will do him good.

Except lo and behold, she’s there with her new boy toy, in the same hotel no less. Despite this bit of convenience, the film is very well written and pretty consistently hilarious. Compared with other Apatow productions, I’d put it below Superbad and Knocked Up, but on par or above 40 Year Old Virgin, and miles above Walk Hard, which I didn’t enjoy much. The film runs on character-based humor, and boy does it have characters.

Hard to believe this is Meg

Mila Kunis plays Rachel, a sympathetic employee at the hotel who befriends Peter and becomes his new romantic interest, if you can’t figure that out from the moment she appears on-screen. She shows she can do a lot more than Meg’s voice on Family Guy. She’s great and funny, especially when she takes him cliff diving and yells “I think I can see your vagina!” when he hesitates. Other Apatow regulars like Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd appear, with Jonah playing low-key as a fan of Aldous, and Rudd utterly hilarious as Chuck the surf instructor whose brains have long been cooked in a drug-induced luau. A hefty black bartender played by Davon McDonald is surprisingly funny, and this newcomer should definitely be getting more parts. Taylor Wily is another helpful Hawaiian named Kemo, with lovely lines such as “are those sad tissues or happy tissues?”

Jonah Hill’s trademark is liking cock

Steve Landesberg from Barney Miller has a small part, and even Branscombe Richmond- from that forgotten 70’s flick I reviewed, The Chicken Chronicles– shows up. Jason Segel is pretty damn funny by himself, looking like a confused, lumpy Brendan Fraser most of the time. Kristen Bell wisely plays Sarah Marshall as a real person and not a movie uber-bitch; Russell Brand is a riot as the brain-dead Brit pop sensation, too. The film lacks that Douche Character that Hollywood formula has come to depend upon; Aldous may be the closest, but he’s still a likeable Lothario.

Doucheboy

Peter is more than a whiny lovelorn goof, and that’s important to making the film as enjoyable as it is. It goes places you’d never expect, and pretty deftly. Nicholas Stoller does a great job as first-time director, leaving plenty to our imaginations when required, though not when Jason’s junk is concerned. I hope someday we can have equality in the area of Gratuitous Nudity. Mr. Wiggles is inherently funny in many situations, while bouncing boobs have rarely been used for such effect. I think there’s comedy gold to be mined there, and I look forward to the day it is found.

This is another fine entry in the “male rom-com” that Apatow practically invented, and I recommend it highly. Firecracker loved it as well- maybe a bit less, since it’s certainly guy-oriented. It’s probably not the best date movie, though both guys and girls get their fair share of slamming, so it could work. You might have an unwelcome conversation about what “counts,” though. Oh, and make sure you stay for the credits, there’s an extra scene about 30 seconds in.