Funny People (Apatow, 2009)

Judd Apatow obviously wants to be taken seriously without abandoning the auteurist traits that got him to this current level of success. What else can explain Apatow’s befuddling new film Funny People? Apatow’s latest is a mosaic of Hollywood inner-circles, contrasting vantage points of struggling comedians and superstar sellouts, allowing just enough overlap between them to construct a traditional redemption tale. Apatow filters both light and dark tones into the proceedings, shooting for the moon but achieving a self-important mix of inadequacy and regret.

The film contains all the trademark Apatow vulgarity, the random coupling of diverse characters, and the deep seeded morality hidden beneath loads of comedic posturing, except without much of the charm of his previous features. Instead, Apatow attempts to inject a seriousness into the proceedings by trying to rekindle Adam Sandler’s dramatic chops, pitting his character George Simmons against the prospect of dying a slow death after living a luxurious, hollow life as a Hollywood icon. And the problem starts at the top, with Sandler’s inability to transcend the material and convince us his character has a soul under the sudden bursts of anger and egomania. Seth Rogen admirably hangs on to Sandler’s shirttails as Ira, a young, slightly dim comedian who turns into Simmons’ good luck punching bag, giving a run down character a complexity the writing doesn’t afford.

Funny People spends copious amounts of time with characters sitting around, shooting and talking shit, seamlessly stealing each other’s jokes as if it were just a part of the routine. So it’s not surprising the film really doesn’t go anywhere, languishing by as Simmons tries to re-woo a long lost girlfriend (Leslie Mann), going to comedy gigs, hoping that life will throw you a fastball down the middle. Success and comedy comes naturally to these characters, and this is in no way an examination of the difficulties toward breaking into the industry. Apatow spends little to no time on the art of Comedy, the process, the experience beyond a few improv sessions, favoring time spent with friends, both faux and real.

It’s an odd epic not without its pleasures (the Eminem cameo and Eric Bana’s small role provide much needed comedic shock), and Apatow’s scope is admirable. But the film is entirely too inert at drama and unfunny in comedy to tow either side of the genre line, making it a strange moment of banal creative expression for a director just finding his rhythm.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Stoller, 2008)

Obviously resting on their previous laurels, the Judd Apatow Train grinds to a standstill with this benignly amatuerish comedy about a Hollywood composer (Jason Segel) who gets dumped by his girlfriend, a devilish “It Girl” television actress named Sarah Marshall. The film has an arrogant transparency at its core that overwhelms the central themes of artistic expression and emotional honesty. The Apatow Universe is already beginning to feel tired, most notably here with the irritating performances by Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd, once strong mainstays of this particular comic trend. Put Forgetting Sarah Marshall alongside the droll laziness of Pineapple Express and you’ve got a picture of how unsuccessful 2008 has been for Apatow compared to their breakout a year before.

Knocked Up (Apatow, 2007)

Seth Rogen, the star of Judd Apatow’s latest comedy Knocked Up, sports a devious but kind smile, a rotund belly, and enough charisma to carry multiple lesser made films. His Ben Stone, the man responsible for impregnating Katherine Heigl’s Allison, is a star making performance – Rogen convincingly maneuvers between sluggish man child and caring, responsible adult with ease, creating a character literally learning how to act like a grown up for the first time (his journey brilliantly parallels his own child’s yet to come). The initial dilemma, whether to make a commitment to Alison after discovering he is the father, takes seconds of screen time. The bulk of the film deals with Ben following up on this promise, namely “actions speak louder than words.” And boy does Apatow, Rogen, Paul Rudd, and company deliver. Knocked Up begins with said accidental hook up and quickly evolves into a crass, poignant, and all together hilarious dissection of pre-married life. The film surpasses the lack of structure seen in The 40 Year Old Virgin by giving it’s protagonist an actual, physical goal toward taking responsibility for his actions, namely 9 months to get his act in gear. Unlike Steve Carrel’s mental quest for the pink taco in the aforementioned film, Rogen’s Ben must learn to leave the easy life of partying, smoking, and sleeping around for a dangerous, risky, chance at something meaningful. Underneath the cussing, the sex, and the painful look at doubt in marriage, Knocked Up creates a sense of purpose and trust within two young people risking it all, both hoping the other will stick around for the long haul. In a country built upon pop culture constantly referencing how cool one night stands, bitches, ho’s, and clubbin’ can be, it’s wonderful to see a gang of Hollywood artists ripping these notions to shreds and recreating the harsh act of the relationship. If not a bit too long, Knocked Up celebrates the evolution of love in ways I never imagined, both in marriage and friendships. Case in point, I never knew pink eye could be transmitted that way. See the flick and you’ll understand.

The 40 Year Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005)

In anticipation of finally seeing Knocked Up tomorrow, I thought I’d get in the mood and revisit The 40 Year Old Virgin, a film I felt ambivalent toward the first time around. My main concerns with the pacing of the film, which still feels overly simple, concept driven, and incredibly cliched, keep this from being an all time personal classic. But the acting, especially Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd, remains flat out hilarious, and Carrel’s lead performance matched with Keener’s smart and beautiful presence creates a protagonist and story worth rooting for. Not much has changed upon a secondary viewing, but I can say I enjoyed the climax more this time around, being completely vested in Andy’s spiritual battle between relationships and detached sex, which I initally felt was overwhelmed by the gags toward the end of the film. Apatow’s direction is minimal in traditional terms, but his writing and camera placement have always been used to highlight his incredible company of actors and their magical timing. Rogen especially, whose minor role in this film makes me ecstatic for Knocked Up. Ever since Freaks and Geeks (one of my favorite TV shows of all time) I’ve been waiting for Rogen to get a starring role, and it’s to Apatow’s credit he’s finally found the right vehicle for maximum success. Here’s a group of comedians worth rooting for as well.