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.

Observe and Report (Hill, 2009)

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Observe and Report has teeth, fangs even, tearing through tones while reveling in the mania of its unstable hero, head of mall security Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen). This focus on absurdity allows Jody Hill’s film to take liberties with plot development while highlighting extreme mood shifts, constructing a modern artificial world based upon the need for power, consumerism, and control. Ronnie’s existence is a roller coaster of shock and awe, and the rest of the world stares on in amazement, in collaboration with the audience, wondering what to make of such an intrusive character.

Ronnie has delusions of grandeur, believing he’s actually a force to be reckoned with inside and later outside the mall. Even though every character sees Ronnie as a menace, or at the very least a nuisance, Hill never judges him no matter how insane the situation gets. But Ronnie often stands at the edge of mass murder, only to be pushed back by narrative convention, and Hill tends to gloss over these uncomfortable moments. Taking this character all the way might have been too much for mainstream audiences.

So the film boils down to the dreams of losers, the desires of bruised people living on the fringe of what modern society deems acceptable. Ronnie is one crazy bastard, but at least he’s a sincere, passionate bastard. Ronnie’s heart is in the right place but his methods are diabolical, terrorizing to pretty much everyone. But instead of sneering at this complex character with irony, Rogen incarnates Ronnie with a special verve for the unpredictable and the unending dedication to transcend outward oppression.

Despite his best intentions, Ronnie’s end-game involves brutality and conformity and this ideology leans toward fascism, making Observe and Report one frantic and disturbing picture. Hill wants both darkness and light, however in this instance the two go together like oil and water. Ronnie’s sentimental moments complicate the director’s vision of his psychosis, and this makes Observe and Report both interesting, uneven, and problematic.

Pineapple Express (Green, 2008)

Like most familiar with film culture, I understand a good trailer does not necessarily equal a good film. But with Pineapple Express, the newest Judd Apatow venture directed (seemingly in name only) by David Gordon Green, the discrepancy in innovation, tone, and overall impact between teaser and feature is downright shocking. Released a few months back, the dynamic Red Band trailer for Pineapple Express (which brilliantly juxtaposes rhythmic slow motion, comedy, brutal violence, and a killer song from MIA) hints at a stunning possibility – an artistic, formally innovative mainstream stoner comedy. The feature, anchored by a swiss cheese script, fails miserably on this promise, replacing coherent narrative storytelling with stream of consciousness drivel supposedly excused by the idiotic, heightened state of its two leads (played by Seth Rogen and James Franco). Still, personal disappointment aside, Pineapple Express manages to buck conventional Hollywood trends in interesting ways. Dialogue scenes are uncomfortably stretched out (presumably because of the improvisation taking place), pop culture references are eliminated, and specific time and place settings remain ambiguous throughout. This makes for a strange relationship between two formats at odds. The complex ambition of the short trailer and the eccentric simplicity of the feature create a tension in authorship worthy of further analysis.