Here is a movie that stars Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen as stand-up comics, is called Funny People, but dares to be something more than a comedy.
Writer-director Judd Apatow knows the business of funny; he's largely responsible for Hollywood's current comedy renaissance, with writing, directing and/or producing credits on everything from Knocked Up, The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Superbad to Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. His first two directorial efforts, Virgin and Knocked Up, were masterful examples of the genre--tear-inducing in their hilarity but also perceptive in their portrayals of modern men at odds with adulthood.
Funny People finds Apatow continuing to indulge his interest in male bonding, but this time, rather than make a comedy, he's opted to make a film about the people who make us laugh. The result is his most mature, thoughtful film to date, though not his funniest. Whether audiences will accept a more sober Apatow remains to be seen, but aside from the epic running time (146 minutes) and the handicap of expectations, there's only so much to criticize about a film this sincere and ambitious.
It would be easy to assume that Sandler is playing a version of himself. His character, George Simmons, is a movie star who makes high concept crap, lives alone in a Malibu mansion and fills his days with meaningless sex and not much else. He's not a very likable guy; he is selfish, prone to fits of anger and somewhat misogynistic. Sandler brings a surprising edge to the character; the actor's played dark and angry in films like Reign Over Me and Punch-Drunk Love, but those characters possessed a child-like dimness that made the comedian, whose specialty is angry, funny-voiced man-children, an obvious choice.
Here too, it might seem an obvious choice. Simmons, after all, is an actor whose specialty is angry, funny-voiced man-children. So why does Sandler's performance feel somehow revelatory? Maybe because, in playing Simmons, it feels as if Sandler is revealing something about himself. The fact that he's probably not is what makes it a great performance.
Complementing Sandler is Rogen as Ira Wright, a young struggling comedian who becomes Simmons's assistant and confidante. The elder comedian has been diagnosed with an untreatable disease that will most likely kill him, and he brings Ira into his life out of loneliness and desperation. Ira is thrilled by the opportunity, but doesn't realize what he's getting himself into. Simmons needs a friend, but doesn't necessarily know how to reciprocate, and the fresh-faced Ira doesn't know how to address weight of Simmons's miserable existence.
Rogen plays the character as someone hiding innocence and vulnerability behind the facade of a crass comedian. When his roommate Mark (a hilarious Jason Schwartzman) sleeps with the girl Ira likes but can barely talk to, he dwells on it for days. When Simmons re-connects with old flame Laura (Leslie Mann), who is now married with kids, Ira warns Simmons that he may be destroying a family. He's a good guy who for the majority of the film must deal with people far more selfish and cynical than himself, and with Simmons he's completely out of his element.
Apatow takes his time with the threadbare plot. Long passages are spent getting to know the characters, and instead of relying on plot contrivance to propel the story, he allows things to unfold in an organic, leisurely way.
When the credits finally roll, you may question why you just spent two-and-a-half hours watching so little happen. If you do, then Funny People is not for you. Personally, I was sad to see the movie end.
What Is It Good For
The Hurt Locker is a perfect movie.
Some might call it a war movie, which technically it is, just like Funny People is technically a comedy. But like Apatow, director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days) is more interested in human truth than genre requirement, and, like Apatow, she has a pre-occupation with male camaraderie that's interwoven through her entire body of work.
This time, the men in her movie are U.S. soldiers, members of an elite bomb squad in Iraq. Their job is dangerous, requires enormous courage and, for these particular men, seems to be psychologically devastating. The leader of the squad is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). He's the one who actually makes contact with the explosives; and his job has clearly become an addiction. He's defused 873 bombs, and has mementos from most of them hidden under his bed. He's cavalier in his methods, and sometimes forces his two closest allies, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) to deviate from protocol in order to compensate for his recklessness.
The film focuses on the last 40 days of their stay in Iraq as they go from job to job defusing buried roadside bombs, car bombs, body bombs (especially gruesome). Because the explosives themselves are usually improvised, James, Sanborn and Eldridge must be alert and flexible in their approach to each scenario. This is no problem for James but is vexing for Sanborn, a by-the-book soldier who feels so threatened by James's wild man methodology that at one point he seriously considers killing him.
Renner plays James as a stoic cowboy, a soldier who thrives under the pressure of what he does, who loves his job more than he loves his wife and child. Mackie and Geraghty admirably keep up with Renner, whose performance is one of the best of the year.
Naturally, the film's subject matter lends itself to unbearable suspense, and Bigelow orchestrates each sequence for maximum visceral impact. In that regard, it's an exhausting film. The ticking time bomb is usually reserved for the nail-biting climax of a movie, and here is a movie that is nothing but ticking time bombs.
Unlike most other war movies set in Iraq, The Hurt Locker completely avoids even a moment of didacticism. No politicizing, no preaching, no eloquent speeches about the immorality of war. It's an intelligent procedural that illuminates an aspect of combat that most people know very little about, it's an existential drama about one man's obsession. Call it a suspenseful thriller, call it an action movie; it's many things, but a movie about the war in Iraq it is not. And that's to its credit.
O' Quiet One
Opening at the Circle this weekend is O'Horten, an odd little Norwegian movie that is, appropriately, about a guy named Odd. The writer and director is Bent Hamer, whose last movie was the well-intentioned but flawed Bukowski adaptation Factotum. Now working back in his home country, Hamer seems to have found the rhythm he was searching for during Factotum, and he comfortably paints a quiet, lighthearted portrait of a working stiff experiencing a late-life crisis caused by retirement.
Odd Horten (Bård Owe) is a 67-year-old railroad engineer who's had the same job for nearly 40 years. When retirement day arrives, he's not sure what to do with himself. He's a silent, reflective man who spends most of the movie absorbing information from some very talkative people. The only person who speaks less than Horten in the movie is his mother, and she doesn't say a word.
Horten has strange, vaguely comical encounters with a series of people, including a little boy who can play his drum set to sound like a train engine, the recently widowed owner of Horten's favorite pipe shop, and an old friend who insists he can drive with his eyes closed. Once in a while, something strange will happen, like an old man in a suit will slide down an icy street.
Hamer films with a minimalism that borders on inanity. Unlike, say, Gus Van Sant, who can make poetry out of nothing happening, Hamer shoots with a drab eye for banal reality, which is sometimes difficult to stomach. His camera is mostly stationary, focusing on prolonged moments of silence and small character snapshots that usually involve Horten staring blankly for an ungodly period of time. It's all very soothing, endearing and easy to watch, though short attention spans should avoid at all costs. Average moviegoers will balk at its lack of a hook--it is after all, about one anonymous old guy doing more or less nothing on the day of his retirement--but for adventurous Circle patrons, O'Horten should be a walk in the park, and is well worth the time.
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