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Fine performances redeem uneven “Funny People”

Funny_People

Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen make a comedy dream team in "Funny People."

Given the fact that Judd Apatow created “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” two of the frankest and funniest romantic comedies to come along in years, it’s not surprising he felt a yen to change things up in “Funny People.” After all, he’s been working this real-guys-cry-and-make-penis-jokes schtick since “Undeclared.” He’s entitled to go all “Elizabethtown” every now and again, right?

Maybe. Maybe Apatow has earned that right, but that doesn’t mean his fans aren’t more than a little disappointed to see him use it to make something as blatantly uneven as “Funny People.”  Here is a movie that is — much like Crowe’s “Elizabethtown” — two movies in one: a dark, bittersweet examination of regret, fame and isolation and a lame-brained comedy. One’s startlingly thoughtful, and the other feels a lot like a Sarah Palin-styled bailout. Guess which movie’s worth paying $7.50 to see.

Still, it’s hard to dismiss “Funny People” as a failure mostly because the first half is so strong and because the performances — all funny, right down to the non-key players — make the whole movie so enjoyable. And what a difference a few years has made for Adam Sandler, who banishes all memory of the crap that made him famous (like “Little Nicky”) with his astonishing turn as terminally ill stand-up comedian George Simmons. Time has worn down Sandler’s features, made his face more wistful and less impish. It’s the face of a real actor, and Sandler, somewhat miraculously, has become one.

This much is evident throughout “Funny People,” with Sandler digging deep to show us every layer of George Simmons. Sequestered in a giant California palace, the comedian spends most of his free time bedding groupies who only want sex so they’ll “have a story to tell their friends.” (Watch Sandler’s priceless delivery of this truth.) The discovery that he has leukemia prompts him to re-enter the stand-up world, and so he hires Ira  Wright (a career-best Seth Rogen), a floundering comedian, to write him new material.

Here is where the meat of “Funny People” exists, in these scenes where Simmons forms a strange bond with Ira, telling him about his diagnosis and trying, earnestly if cautiously, to make a real friend before he dies. Yet there is not one ounce of sap to be found in any of these moments, and credit must go to Apatow’s script and Sandler and Rogen’s talent. These two rip on each other without mercy, and their barbs are all the more powerful because it’s clear they disguise anguish. Ira’s naive and doesn’t know how to deal with the mess his one-time idol has made of his life. The more bitter George is haunted by regrets, not least of which was cheating on his ex-fiancee Laura (Leslie Mann, an actress of deceptive subtlety). In a dumber movie George and Ira might teach each other life lessons; in “Funny People,” neither one has much wisdom to offer. How refreshing that is.

Sadly, this vastly superior movie ends around the 75-minute mark and another begins, one I’m tempted not to mention at all because it’s kind of a sellout. But the second half contains some very impressive acting and a few points of redemption. George drags Ira on a road trip to find Laura. There’s some broad physical comedy in this, a few zingers (my favorite throwaway: Rogen’s “You can’t have two girls in China”) and some very fine chemistry shared by Mann and Sandler. Oh, and Eric Bana brings on the funny as Laura’s chatty Aussie husband. (Yes, the pre-Ed Norton “Hulk” guy has jokes.) But there’s no nuance in this act, and the finale is too pat, too neat.

But no more of this movie; it does not merit further discussion. What does is the acting, which is aces all around. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman are hysterical (in very different ways) as Ira’s quarreling roommates. (Schwartzman also did the music for the movie.) People tend to say that Mann gets cast in these kinds of movies because she’s Apatow’s wife. That’s but a half-truth because Mann’s an actress who projects warmth, humor and vulnerability in every scene. And, of course, there’s Rogen and Sandler, never better. They make a great comedic team, but their individual performances are remarkably layered and distinctive in a movie that it is only marginally so.

Grade: B-

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Review: “Spun” (2002)

SpunJonas Åkerlund’s frenetic “Spun” isn’t so much a movie as a series of disconnected scenes that deliver a Blitzkrieg-style assault on the senses. How fitting, since crystal meth is hardly a subtle drug. It bludgeons reality and lets illusion, paranoia and delusion run amock. Åkerlund knows this, and soon he’s made flag-waving believers of us, too.

How does he do it? Well, he creates a what must be called the quintessential meth experience and peoples it with characters who have lost interest in anything but meth — snorting it, shooting it, looking for more so they can snort or shoot it. At the heart of “Spun” is dealer/hard-core tweaker Spider Mike (John Leguizamo), who shares an apartment with his girlfriend Cookie (Mena Suvari). Meth, it becomes clear, is the only thing they have in common. Also in the mix is Ross (Jason Schwartzman), Spider Mike’s best customer, who might look like the nice, average guy at the Y if he wasn’t all twitchy and squirmy from crank withdrawals. Mike, Cookie and Ross owe their habit to The Cook (the unassailably cool Mickey Rourke), meth cooker extraordinaire who feeds his whiny girlfriend Nikki (a frighteningly gaunt Brittany Murphy) meth to keep her out of his way while he diddles strippers.

Åkerlund directs all these stories with a kind of intense, hyperactive energy that makes “Spun” feel as, well, twitchy as its characters. There are lightning-quick cuts, rapid camera work and jittery scenes (including one involving more of Mena Suvari’s bathroom habits than anyone — even her most devoted fans — wanted to know) that give us the feel of a meth binge. There’s an undercurrent of comedy, particularly involving The Cook’s perpetual condescension for Nikki and Spider Mike and Cookie’s constant feuding. But the humor is edged with a desperation that’s just plain scary. Nowhere is that more evident than a scene where Ross leaves a kindly hooker (why are they always kindly in movies?) tethered to his bed to go on a meth run … and doesn’t come back for days. Schwartzman plays this for comedy, but his utter lack of concern for anyone or anything other than meth, his disconnect from reality, is bone-chilling.

In fact, it’s Ross who hits us the hardest. Leguizamo is comical with his monkey-like energy; Suvari’s barely concealed hatred for her boyfriend/dealer draws a few laughs; Rourke’s air of complete calm and disdain toward Nikki is marvelous. These characters are a little left of center, a little funny, sure, but they’re hardly the meat of the story (and despite all the MTV-esque camera stylings and jerky humor, there is meat). Schwartzman makes us feel every bruise and scrape Ross got on his way to the bottom. We hear messages go unanswered on his machine, and we intuit how he’s ignored and abused and neglected a laundry list of people, including his ex-girlfriend Amy (Charlotte Ayanna). By the time he connects with Nikki and becomes a driver for The Cook, he’s a goner, too much in love with meth to notice or vaguely care about anyone else who isn’t. Murphy does commendable work in making Nikki a sympathetic character, an ordinary person who escaped her ordinary problems through drugs. She could be anyone. Ross could be anyone. Under the right set of bad circumstances, they could be us.

That’s not to say that “Spun” can be called a deep or meaningful film, or even a film in the strictest sense of the term. It’s more of a kinetic, hyper-stylized, arty but not entirely unfeeling snapshot of how drugs change people, and not for the better. What truth could be more simple, and more powerful, than that?

Grade: B-