Update: “Funny People” and the People Who Love Them (Hate Them?)

I don’t usually do updates like this but some very interesting things have happened I feel since I published my attack on Manohla Dargis/attempt to defend the movie “Funny People”.

On one hand, I have had multiple people come up to me, or comment on my blog, and flat out disagree with me.

“After the first movie, I was like okay.” One person told me, referring to Judd Apatow’s films. “After the second one, I was tired of it. And now with the third, I’m just like come on. How are these ugly fucks getting any girls whatsover?”

This was a graduate film student, who I had casually struck up in conversation while exporitng my movie to DVD, so to hear his exasperation was something strange.

Another example came as I awoke this morning from my friend and pretty cool/cynical animator, Nathaniel Katz.

“I would really prefer something more nuanced than a bunch of male chauvinist conservatism masked as ‘ugly, stupid guys get beautiful women while only talking about their dicks'” He wrote.

“If I wanted that, I could just watch porn.”

Both of these people’s anger/annoyance at “Funny People” or Judd Apatow in general strikes me as disproportionate, but we’ll get to that later.

Because the same weekend that I received comments about my defense of “Funny People”, TWO articles were published in the very same paper that originally trashed the movie: The New York Times.

In A.O. Scott’s piece, Spoon-Fed Cinema, he stops just short of attacking Manohla Dargis’s review of “Funny People”, stating that the “debate will rage on” on that front. But what he does do is bemoan the fact that Apatow’s “most serious film, whose subject is the challenge of maturity”, was also his one that was least able to connect with viewers. According to Scott, this represented a degradation of Americans’ response to nuanced cinema, punishing darker movies like “Funny People” and “The Hurt Locker” (also mentioned in the article), while rewarding high-budget low-value trash like “Transformers 2” or “Harry Potter 6”. According to the math of it, Scott says, based on the successes and failiures of this summer, less ambitious movies will be made as studios bank on sequel after sequel and pre-established franchise after franchise (Live-Action Smurfs movie anyone?). The fact that Apatow failed when attempting to make a darker and more interesting movie than his previous films, means that he’ll either have less free reign on the next film potentially, or that perhaps he won’t be able to make his films for a while. The latter possibility I find hard to believe, since his two previous films have made so much money, but Scott makes an interestng point.

Taking it to a wholly other extreme, I was amazed to find Ross Douthat’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times today was also about “Funny People.”

Entitled “The Unfunny Truth”, Douthat, a conservative brought into replace the degenerate William Kristol as the “token conservative” on the Times’ Op-Ed board, had written his weekly piece on how the films of Judd Apatow are deeply socially conservative. This is a criticism I have heard before, but never so explicitly. Douthat argues that “40 Year-Old Virgin” is a parable about waiting until marriage (or at least responsibility) to have sex, while “Knocked Up” shows that not every botched one-night stand has to end in abortion. What’s more by combining these values with crude humor, Apatow has made this brand of social conservatism “cool”.

I should interrupt to point out that I feel that this criticism is deeply flawed. It is the same criticism that leads people to call “Juno” a “pro-life” movie, when to read that in to it is to intuit too much. Firstly, the films of Judd Apatow are all, according to him, explicitly autobiographical. “I wasn’t 40 when I lost my virginity.” He told a crowd at the DGA Theater. “But I was up there. There were 10 years when I didn’t have sex in my life and that wasn’t my teens or in when I was 5.” As was Knocked Up, a film he described as himself, fractured into two stages of his marriage. The Paul Rudd character in that film is almost explicitly Apatow, married to his Apatow’s wife in the film, Leslie Mann, and bearing Apatow’s own children playing pastiched versions of themselves (as they also do in “Funny People”). The point being that in these films, we are not dealing with ideologies but rather with personal decsions. Unlike what some people might have you believe, it is not “conservative” to think that an abortion might not always be the right idea (as seen in “Juno” or “Knocked Up”), it is pragmatic. If anything, it is the decision of the female characters involved in those films to try something that defines them, a “choice” that they are given, the same that some conservatives might deny them. I might also point out that in the same movie that Steve Carell is dealing with his awkwardness regarding sex, another character played by Paul Rudd is attempting with the help of his friends to fuck his way out of depression. Apatow is always careful to portray personal stories and to counterbalance or to mock them, in order to try to put them in perspective. Like the three-point lighting technique of cinema, it’s what makes his characters pop.

Anyway, back to Douthat. Douthat says that “Funny People” is the least popular of Apatow’s films because it is the most socially conservative. In the previous films, he points out, doing the “right thing” (wink) was fairly easy.

“Still a virgin in middle age?” He asks. “Not to worry — you’ll find a caring, foxy woman who’s been waiting her whole life for an awkward, idealistic guy like you. Pregnant from a drunken one-night stand? Good news — the oaf who knocked you up will turn out to be a decent guy, and you’ll be able to keep the baby and your career as a rising entertainment-news anchorwoman. Frittering away your life on porn and pot? Fear not — your wasted twenties won’t stop you from being a great dad.”

However, in “Funny People”, George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is confronted with the prospect that he has wasted his life and is going to die. In response to this, he seeks human comfort selfishly, first through his human pillow Ira (Seth Rogen), but then through trying to reconnect with “the one who got away”, Laura (Leslie Mann) who is inconveniently married to a boisterous Aussie (Eric Bana), with two kids no less. If perhaps this was a conventional “easy-out” film, Bana would turn out to be a jerk, Sandler would go in and save the day, everyone would be happy, we’d see Adam Sandler smooching and then we’d go home. But here, the message is that we can’t turn back the clock.

“This time, doing the right thing has significant costs — but you have to do it anyway.” Douthat writes. “This time, doing the wrong things for too long has significant consequences — and you have to live with them. It’s the first Apatow film in which love doesn’t conquer all. And it’s the first Apatow film in which you get punished for your sins.”

Even if I don’t agree that it’s Apatow’s “most conservative” film, I would endeavor to call it his most mature and perhaps most stridently realist.

It is defintely a half-an-hour too long, but it deserves a better look.

***

Finally, the two complaints from the beginning of the post answered.

Question 1. “Why do all those ugly guys get all those hot girls?”

I feel this question seems to breed some resentment. No, this isn’t fantasyland. These movies are somewhat autobiographical. Also, Seth Rogen’s girlfriend in real life is like a model or something. The answer, gentlemen, is this. They’re nice, moderately attractive, often very funny guys. In “40 Year-Old Virgin”, Catherine Keener is pretty much made out as a plausible fit for Steve Carrell’s awkwardness: a pretty, self-sufficient woman who has as many mixed feelings about affairs as he does about his lack thereof. She doesn’t have a problem finding sex, but he’s looking for love, which at her age is attractive. In “Knocked Up”, seemingly the most implausible of the pairings, in the beginning, they were both very, very drunk. Question answered. But more than that, it is a criticism of LA and the fading ideal of older, incarcerated action stars (Wesley Snipes) or younger, dunderheaded ones (Channing Tatum) as models for attractiveness. Isn’t it fair that in a city of such shallow pretention, where every guy is trying to look like “the leading man”, the girl might try something different at least once? Finally, in “Funny People”, George is incredibly successful when he finds his then girlfriend Laura and fame is sexy, even if you don’t find Sandler particularly attractive back in his “Hannukah Song” days. As for Rogen and his girl, the stunning Aubrey Plaza, the answer’s there too: originally she doesn’t like him. She fucks his roommate the more classically attractive Jason Schwartzman, who is also more successful than he is. When Rogen confronts her on it, she points out the folly of his impulses in one of the film’s more honest scenes, before he frustratedly states his middle-schoolish intentions, the tenderness of which she decides to honor with at least a date. The point is that I’m not sure why people have so much issue with these films. Beautiful women go with less attractive men every day, for a number of reasons.

I mean, jesus, just look at this.

***

Question 2. Why are they always talking about their dicks?

For “Funny People” this question is easy to answer: they are comedians. Have you ever seen a comedian? The laugh is the most important thing to them, not the material necessarily though that is important. They work off anything that is funny and things that are uncomfortable are funny and talking about penises generally makes a portion of the populace uncomfortable. In “Superbad” they are talking about them as a sign of ther immaturity and inexperience. It is merely an attempt at some sort of comic realism, if not for the whole film than for the moment. But ultimately, why? Because it’s funny, or in “Funny People” because it’s uncomfortable and in both situations, because it’s a way men avert from talking about other subjects. Which gets me to my next point, if you don’t like it, easy: Don’t watch the films.

***

Douthat and Scott make interesting points, even if I don’t agree with all of their conclusions. I think that the outlook for Apatow films and other nuanced comic-dramas are less apocalyptic than Scott might think, since Apatow has still earned Hollywood a bunch of cash and Jody Hill is now on the scene with his own brand of comic deconstruction, as well as the satisfaction of Robert Siegel’s upcoming “Big Fan”. I think what Douthat regards as “conservatism”, I see as “individualism”, the same strain that caused the “South Park” creators to rebel against what they felt was a complaced Hollywood liberalism in their show, without necessarily throwing themselves to the defense of people like George W. Bush. In both cases, the creators are comedians and it’s ultimately about getting the laughs or deconstructing them, whether by fart or dick jokes, or simply by going unexpected places in the narrative.

And if you don’t like that, well, there’s always “Transformers 2”.

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3 Responses to Update: “Funny People” and the People Who Love Them (Hate Them?)

  1. nkatz22 says:

    thanks for spending some more time thinking about this.
    i still disagree.
    but thank you.
    did you say something about live action smurfs?

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