Posted by: Jeff | August 11, 2009

My “Funny People” Thoughts, Part I

Since Joe panned Funny People, I figured I’d add some interest to the blog by saying a few words in its defense. Ross Douthat wrote an interesting column concerning the film in The New York Times the other day (more on that column in Part II) which gets at why I think it’s actually pretty good. Commenting on the farcical uplift of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Douthat notes:

Still a virgin in middle age? Not to worry — you’ll find a caring, foxy woman who’s been waiting her whole life for an awkward, idealistic guy like you. Pregnant from a drunken one-night stand? Good news — the oaf who knocked you up will turn out to be a decent guy, and you’ll be able to keep the baby and your career as a rising entertainment-news anchorwoman. Frittering away your life on porn and pot? Fear not — your wasted twenties won’t stop you from being a great dad.

With “Funny People,” though, Apatow is offering a more realistic morality play. This time, doing the right thing has significant costs — but you have to do it anyway. This time, doing the wrong things for too long has significant consequences — and you have to live with them. It’s the first Apatow film in which love doesn’t conquer all. And it’s the first Apatow film in which you get punished for your sins.

Whether or not this contributed to Funny People’s disappointing showing at the box office, as Douthat surmises, I don’t know. It’s certainly a plausible explanation. But I think Douthat is dead-on about what a break Funny People is, both from most of Hollywood’s offerings as well as from Judd Apatow’s previous work. And I think he’s right that the break is a good thing. Meanwhile, Ezra Klein, riffing off Douthat’s column, points out that while (500) Days of Summer billed itself as a movie with the stones to avoid an affirmation of “happily ever after,” Funny People – while it wasn’t advertised in that manner – actually delivers the goods.

Which isn’t to say Funny People doesn’t have its problems. It does. At times, the overly long, meandering narrative and lurching plot developments make it seem as if Apatow was trying to imitate Martin Scorsese. But if Funny People lacks in terms of structural craftsmanship compared to Apatow’s previous works, it rises above them in terms of maturity, realism, and artistic vision. Apatow seriously stretched himself with this one.

And that matters. Because we live in a universe in which things don’t get fixed, mistakes can’t be undone and some wounds don’t heal, and we need to learn how to live as decent human beings even within those circumstances. Films can help us do that. So while many very good films can get away with denying those darker realities – The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up among them – there is a special kind of greatness achieved only by films willing to acknowledge them. Funny People doesn’t achieve that special greatness. But man, it took a swing, and kudos to it for that.

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