In Theaters: "Funny" Ha Ha or "Funny" Nah Nah?

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    Reviews of Funny People, Thirst and Not Quite Hollywood

    Funny People
    Directed by Judd Apatow
    Starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana

    Judd Apatow’s name has been attached to so many films in recent years it’s a surprise when you recall that Funny People is only his third directorial effort.  Then again, in the course of those three movies, Apatow has tackled weightier subjects than some directors attempt in an entire career.  The 40-Year-Old-Virgin was about falling in love, Knocked Up was about making babies and now Funny People tackles the hilarious subject of death.  Now that he’s covered three of life’s biggest milestones, one can only wonder where Apatow can go next.  Anyone up for a raucous comedy about male menopause?

    The trailers for Funny People have already revealed that the dying man at the film’s center is George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a former stand-up comedian turned big-time movie star who headlines high-concept family comedies with titles like Merman…where he plays–what else?–a merman!  What you may not know, however, is that Funny People is also about the passing of a certain generation of comics–specifically the men and women that came up with Sandler in the late ’80s and early ’90s, folks like Norm MacDonald and Andy Dick, all of whom appear in the film as themselves–and the rise of a new class represented here by Seth Rogen’s Ira Wright, a fledgling comedian who becomes Simmons’ personal assistant and sometimes joke-writer.

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    It’s no accident that Apatow is the one who is overseeing this transfer of power, so to speak.  Back in the day, he used to room with Sandler and, in fact, home movies of their early exploits unspool during the film’s opening credits.  In recent years though, he’s helped cultivate Hollywood’s current crop of young A-list comedy stars from Rogen and Jason Segel to Jay Baruchel and Jonah Hill.  While the film touches briefly on the differences between the stand-up artists of Sandler’s generation and their offspring, the general vibe one gets from Funny People is that the kids really are all right.  Sure they may be overly obsessed with dick jokes, but they’ve also got some great punchlines up their sleeves.

    If I seem to be avoiding describing the film’s story in detail, that’s because there’s not much to tell.  Apatow’s comedies have never been overly dependent on plot; his approach is to drop his characters into a situation and allow the comedy to emerge from their behavior.  Thus, George receives his diagnosis in the first or second scene and the bulk of the film’s first half finds him struggling to come to terms with this development.  He initially avoids his friends and family, then reaches out to them for advice and support.  He also returns to the stand-up clubs where he got his start for an unofficial “last hurrah” tour.  That’s where he first crosses paths with Ira and hires him essentially on a whim.  For his part, Ira looks at being George’s errand boy as the big break he’s been waiting for, especially since his obnoxious roommates (Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill) have secured steady jobs and remind him of that at every opportunity.

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    This section of the movie is classic Apatow, stuffed with hilarious and clearly semi-improvised dialogue, surprise celebrity cameos and moments of surprising emotional depth.  But then a development occurs midway through the film that sends Funny People off in an entirely different direction, one that deliberately doesn’t make room for the comic highs of the first half.  (This twist has been revealed in some of the trailers as well, but I’m not going to repeat it here.)  The last forty-five minutes of the two-and-a-half hour film take place entirely at the home of George’s former fiancée Laura (Apatow’s real-life wife Leslie Mann), who has since married an Australian businessman (Eric Bana) and has two adorable kids (played by Apatow’s actual children, Maude and Iris).  Once again, I don’t want to reveal how exactly events play out, but suffice it to say that George shows up there looking to catch a glimpse of the life he missed out on and ends up getting more than he bargained for.

    I fully expect the second half of Funny People to lose some viewers, particularly those going in expecting the non-stop yuks of Virgin and Knocked Up.  Apatow and Sandler are pushing themselves out of their comfort zones here and that’s reflected in the somewhat awkward pacing.  It doesn’t help that the director can’t keep himself from lingering on his children’s adorable faces or his wife’s ass in tight jeans.  At least Mann has the required dramatic and comedic chops to make Laura into a believable character; their kids, on the other hand, won’t be putting the Fanning sisters out of business anytime soon.

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    Despite or maybe even because of these third-act stumbles, Funny People is an immensely rewarding film that displays artistic ambitions you might not have thought either Sandler or Apatow were capable of.  Sandler may actually be better here than he was in his deservedly celebrated turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love.  That film still found him playing a variation on his signature angry young man persona; this one demands a maturity and emotional honesty he’s rarely had the chance to display before and he proves himself up to the challenge.  The same could be said about Apatow himself.  More than any other film he’s directed over produced to date, Funny People puts Apatow’s private fears, neuroses and joys onscreen for everyone to see.  The resulting film isn’t always pretty, but more often than not it is pretty damn funny.

    Verdict: See It


    Also in Theaters:

    Directed by Park Chan-wook
    Starring Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-vin, Kim Hae-sook, Shin Hay-kyun

    Leave it to South Korean bad boy Park Chan-wook to inject some much-needed creative energy into the increasingly tired vampire genre.  Employing the same mixture of dark comedy, soap-opera melodramatics and gonzo gore that made his best-known film—2003’s Oldboy—such a trip to watch, the director concocts a story that follows a devout priest whose faith is tested after he is transformed into a vampire following a blood transfusion.  Now sporting all the powers—and needs—of Dracula himself, this man of God falls for the wife of a childhood friend, a woman whose quiet exterior hides a seriously disturbed soul.  Thirst is probably Chan-wook’s most commercially accessible film, lacking the scrambled narrative chronology and disturbing incest subplot that scared some viewers off of Oldboy.  But the director’s fans needn’t worry about him selling out; Park’s greatest skill as a director is meshing wildly different tones—comedy, horror and romantic melodrama—into a coherent whole and Thirst offers all the thrills, laughs and “Holy shit!” moments we’ve come to expect from him.  Whether Thirst is better that Oldboy is fodder for debate, but there’s no question that its among 2009’s best films.
    Verdict: See It

    Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!
    Directed by Mark Hartley

    Film buffs and horror fans will have a terrific time watching Mark Hartley’s lively documentary, which covers the history of Australia’s seedy genre film industry in 103 highly enjoyable minutes.  Divided into three sections, the movie explores the three major categories of exploitation flicks churned out by enterprising producers in the ’70s and ’80s: sex comedies, action thrillers and, of course, horror pictures.  Fortunately for Hartley, many of the actors, directors and producers from that era are still alive and kicking and they’ve all agreed to sit in front of his camera for insightful, candid interviews.  At times though, I occasionally found myself wishing that Hartley would ask his subjects tougher questions.  One subject that is rarely broached, for example, is how Australia’s problematic history with race relations factored into the kinds of films produced by the exploitation industry.  It also would have been interesting to pay a brief visit to New Zealand to see how a young Peter Jackson was inspired by the Australian genre industry to create his own brand of extreme horror.  Despite these missed opportunities, Not Quite Hollywood is a fast, fun introduction to an era of filmmaking that deserves more exposure.
    Verdict: See It

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