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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-

“Observe and Report” a bizarre, twisted character study

Seth Rogen and Anna Farris redefine the term "odd couple" in "Observe and Report."

Seth Rogen and Anna Farris redefine the term "odd couple" in "Observe and Report."

Ronnie Barnhart gets no respect, no respect. The head of security at Forest Ridge Mall, he can’t get a date with the lusty dim-bulb make-up counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris); can’t convince his by-the-book boss (Dan Bakkedahl) to let him carry a gun; can’t trust his mother (Celia Weston) to do anything but get drunk, soil her pajamas and pass out in a heap on the carpet. Then a pervert (Randy Gambill) runs amok in the mall, flashing Brandi, and Ronnie sees a chance to change his luck. And he rips into the flasher investigation with the unrepentant zeal of a man who lives so far inside his own delusions it’s a wonder he can interact with other people at all.

Now, I told you all of that to tell you this: No amount of nutshelling or explaining or summarizing can prepare you for the hot, flaming box of crazy that is Jody Hill’s pitch-black, acidly funny and wildly unnerving “Observe and Report.” Hill, the crackpot genius behind “The Foot Fist Way” (didn’t see it? don’t worry; only four people did) and HBO’s “Eastbound & Down,”  creates a similarly twisted world here, where the hero’s clearly psychotic squirrel bait with a God complex but everyone’s too scared (Charles, a mall employee who gets roped into being part of Ronnie’s kill-the-flasher task force) or too high (Michael Pena) or too bored (the Yuen twins, who know their way around automatic weapons) not to play along.

And Rogen’s steely-eyed Ronnie is an intriguing character to be sure; he’s crazy, sure, but the kind of crazy that’s contagious, that spreads and gives worker drones something to do besides yell at kids to stop jumping in the fountain. Rogen does fairly admirable work making Ronnie — this cringe-worthy statement is true — a sympathetic character (if you can feel sympathy for a guy who seems a whole lot like a pre-clock tower Charles Witman). He’s delusional, yes, and violent, but we root for him because we sense he’s grabbing frantically at any power he can get. There’s something endearing but extremely unnerving about that.

And had Hill zeroed in on Ronnie’s laundry list of psychological issues, “Observe and Report” might have been a disturbing but thought-provoking character study, kind of like “Punch Drunk Love” with more gore. But Hill gets cocky and overambitious; he lobs in so many characters and plots that he can’t begin to develop them all … so he doesn’t. Ronnie’s conflict with Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta looking, well, like Ray Liotta always looks: tense, pissed off and a hair trigger from bashing your brains out on the nearest brick wall) feels tacked on. There’s a potential date rape scene that gets left in the dust. One riotously funny character — Saddam (Aziz Ansari of “Parks and Recreation” fame) — delivers gut-busting lines that deserve more time. Ronnie’s relationship with his drunk mother gets, oh, 10 minutes of screen time, yet it deserves much more.

Which leads to an even bigger problem: Methinks Hill has serious issues with women. All the women in “Observe and Report” are used as props; they’re flat as flat gets. They’re all presented powerless and useless. Brandi’s a superficial sexpot, but the alternative — Nell (Collette Wolf), a gold cross-sporting mall employee rendered lame by a leg cast — is no better. Ronnie’s mother is a hopeless drunk who can’t hoist herself off the floor. Perhaps this is meant to make Ronnie seem stronger. If so, too bad, because it’s the chump choice, the easy one that takes no risks, and it doesn’t work in a movie that takes so many. I expect more from Hill, and this fainting women phase needs to come to an end. Give us some depth. In a movie unafraid to feature a five-minute chase scene with a flabby and, uh, flaccid naked man running free in the mall, is that too much to ask?

Grade: C-

Smith returns with heartfelt grossout “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Elizabeth Banks and Seth Rogen are porn stars (in their own minds) in "Zack and Miri Make a Porno."

Comedian Rita Rudner once remarked that before meeting her husband she’d never fallen in love but had “stepped in it a few times.” The same can be said of the hapless title characters in writer/director Kevin Smith’s pottymouthed, big-hearted “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.” Pals Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) spend 10 years stepping in mistakes only to realize — with the help of the chummiest porn film crew ever — they could have fallen into something big.

And such, too, is the case with Smith, who catalogued a few missteps of his own with the shamelessly sentimental “Jersey Girl” and the sorta-funny but mostly disappointing “Clerks II.” With its endless parade of raunchy sex gags, full-frontal nudity (female AND male), bodily fluid jokes and profanity-laden dialogue, though, “Zack and Miri” is no misstep. If anything, it signals something big: the return of an artist reclaiming his favorite medium.

That’s not to say “Zack and Miri” is perfect; it’s just the perfect Kevin Smith rom-com. Consider the left-of-center plot: Twentysomething roommates Zack and Miri, friends since first grade, share a rundown Pittsburgh apartment that lacks decoration and, thanks to some frivolous spending on sex toys, both electricity and running water. Dejected, Zack and Miri hole up in a dive bar to regroup, and Zack hatches his “brilliant” plan: He and Miri can — you’ll never guess! — make a porno, distribute it to their senior class (they’ve got the mailing list since they just suffered through their 10-year reunion) and make a bundle, or at least enough to turn on the water and power.

True to form, “Zack and Miri” succeeds because Smith dusts off a few of his trademarks (which, I suspect, must have been tucked away in storage since before “Jersey Girl”). First, there’s the “shock and awe” dialogue. Granted, these days the F-word is hardly shocking, but Smith’s script includes enough of it — and several other choice four-letter words — that it’s a wonder the film wasn’t slapped with an “NR” rating. But Smith mixes the profane with the profound, throwing in a few insightful lines (Zack and Miri’s attempts to name their porno; Miri’s riff on “period panties”) that make the profanity easier to take.

Another Smith hallmark? A cast of wacky secondary characters that amps up the comedy and, on occasion, provides unexpected insight. Smith newcomer Craig Robinson gets some of the film’s biggest laughs playing Delaney, an unhappily married man who just wants “to see some free titties.” (He should, henceforth, be known as Craig Robinson, not That Warehouse Guy from “The Office.”) Real-life porn stars Katie Morgan (Stacey, an airhead stripper) and Traci Lords (Bubbles, who got the name because she can blow bubbles using her … uh, best you find out for yourself) have cameos, and Jason Mewes (a.k.a. Jay) manages to make his character, a legend-in-his-own-mind womanizer, somehow likable. Even Randall (Jeff Anderson) of “Clerks” fame shows up to join the fun … and ends up with something (hint: it’s not egg) all over his face.

And, of course, there are the leads we can’t help rooting for. Rogen’s managed to make being a pudgy, schleppy dork ubercool, even sexy, and he revives that routine here to great comic effect. He’s exactly right to play the guy you never knew you always wanted. Banks, who’s slowly come into her own as a comic actress, hits all the right notes as a high school dweeb-turned-hot chick who hasn’t quite grown into her new skin. (Put glasses and some overalls on her and she could play the Pretty Ugly Girl in yet another teen movie spoof.)

A few critics have argued Banks and Rogen don’t generate much romantic chemistry; I beg to differ. There are sparks there, but they’re the kind expected of two people who stumbled into something life-changing but totally unforseen. Their interactions are a bit awkward, halting, tentative; Miri says the wrong thing, Zack fumbles with a button, and neither wants to admit what’s going on. But all that culminates in the one of the sweetest, most believable sex scenes ever filmed. The reason? There’s no trace of artifice in the entire sequence; every part of it feels real (well, as real as it can considering it’s Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, not Zack and Miri). They say the wrong things, they can’t find this zipper or that belt loop, they don’t know where to put their hands. It’s awkward and ungainly, but in a way that’s completely disarming, funny and endearing.

That said, “Zack and Miri” has its share of flaws. At 112 minutes, it’s a bit long-winded, the feces jokes get old after, oh, about 30 minutes, the “serious talk” moments fizzle and the ending is disappointingly predictable. But every minute of “Zack and Miri” is vintage Kevin Smith, and that alone is cause for celebration. And that, as Banky might say, is cause for a “shared moment.”

Grade: B+