Bright Lights Film Journal

Apatow and Agnostic Comedy

I recently screened Judd Apatow’s Funny People (the latest in a long list of theatrical releases that the blogosphere has loved to “ehhh” about) with a group of friends, and quite notably after having had the beneficial pleasure of Joe Aisenberg’s Bromance piece for Bright Lights. I came out of the movie not entirely satisfied but feeling as though that was part of Apatow’s industrial thrust (and feeling somewhat let-down by this meta-assessment as well, but we could go on like this forever). Either way, I’ve been considering how the schism between the guy-love of Funny People— which pivots on a downright bitch/butch relationship between the fictional comedic titan played by Adam Sandler and the deli-employed stand-up hopeful Seth Rogan plays — and the gushy bondage/penile badinage of The Hangover is a nearly instructive example of the difference between (attempted) art and (attempted) commerce, and the dangers of both.

I use these terms rather loosely, and according to quite debatable definitions (“art” is, in my opinion, little more than a sticker bearing a bold, “Sign Here!” arrow anyhow), but the false dichotomy will hopefully serve as a rough illustration. Todd “Old School” Phillips is, in my view, one of the most bafflingly successful filmmakers in Hollywood — he even manages to consistently sterilize the very funny Will Farrell with puerile, high concept gags — and an adequate poster child for all that’s gone wrong with the post-Nat Lampoon, frat-house style humor. The Hangover, too, is basically a transplant of the worst of frat sensibilities — the pussy whipped eunach, the fringey stoner, the noble slut — with a meretriciously Vegas setting that only manages to win laughs from an able, inherently comedic cast. I think I laughed out loud twice.

But here’s the rub — I didn’t laugh out loud during Funny People, either. Apatow would probably be gratified by this information, since he’s posturing his latest directorial effort as a “serious” experiment. And, to his credit, the film was far more acidic an experience than that of the The Hangover‘s hit-making essay at gut-busting — as Adam Sandler’s self-awareness climbs we realize that we’re essentially spending two+ hours in intimate contact with an utter cad, and only a marginally funny one. This has all been said before, of course, and most bloggers agree that Funny People loses focus in its misshapen third act, a marathon of awkward relationship friction that casts an uncomfortable shadow on what we grow to understand has been 90 minutes of set-up for a rather bitter, confusing anti-love story. But what grabbed my attention through most of this content wasn’t the staunch defiance of the three-act, hour-and-a-half comedy structure or even the weirdly Freudian casting of Apatow’s wife as Adam Sandler’s lost love (we watch him preparing to perform cunnilingus on her in one scene, in fact) but the fact that this is the last thing I would have anticipated from the Apatow of The Ben Stiller Show or The Critic or The Larry Sanders Show (Freaks and Geeks showed a bit of dramatic maturation, true, but even that wasn’t quite as wincingly self-doubtful).

Apatow is one of the most gifted comedians out there — not just funny, but able to tap into the zeitgeist in a manner that infuriates network execs and wins his projects lasting cult fame (Apatow-helmed productions usually make up with fan sites what they lack in ratings). But as with Preston Sturges’ John Sullivan, one can feel his restless perspective towards his own artistry; in particular, his scripts for Larry Sanders were some of the show’s most skeptical, and for a program built around industry skepticism that distinction demands attention. Even his hilariously spot-on Jay Leno impression seems fitfully full of self-loathing (the characterization works, of course, because it’s a complex we love to project on to the former Tonight Show host).

When Apatow moved into film directing, it was a promising transition; The 40 Year Old Virgin was little more than a one-note vehicle for Steve Carrell, but the skewed sense of nobility and reluctance to allow actors to go too far over the top ensured its uniqueness aside films like the irksome remake of Starsky and Hutch. Knocked Up was even better and remains, I think, Apatow’s best film (either as writer, director, or producer) due to its remarkable male candor and pithy use of a cozily-smogged Los Angeles as a metaphor for prolonged infancy (Louden Wainwright’s bullseye soundtrack also helped more than anyone could have hoped). But even Knocked Up seemed, in retrospect, rather indulgent; whether based on fact or not, there was something all too confessional about the prospective progeny angst, and while comedy can resonate beautifully when “real,” being emotionally “real” never seemed like Apatow’s metier. He’s much better at tweaking the tone of pitchblack surrealist sketches, such as a memorable Ben Stiller Show scene involving a cannibalistic restaurateur.

Funny People, as Ed Howard astutely points out, is the first time where the gap between Apatow’s ambition and his ability seems too noticeable to amicably dismiss — I mean, lop off the final hour of the film and try to write a serious drama around it and there’d be next to nothing of substance to work with. But what’s even more unsettling is that all of his once cutting punchlines are being muted and softened by nervous glances and hiccups in his characters’ self-esteem; it’s almost as though he’s working out a lack of occupational confidence through his cast. Seth Rogan waves away nearly every joke he pulls off in this film — many of which are quite funny, but rendered harmless through the constant disclaimering gesticulations. And I feel as though this, too, is part of Apatow’s plan, to show the pain of the workaday comedian and the struggle required to achieve a professional zenith that winds up being an existential bust anyway. But you can’t help but feel that Apatow’s subtly condescending to his protagonists, making us choose between a dead-beat gag writer who *should* be successful and *could* be if he were somewhat less of a man-child, and a rich prick whose prickishness and egocentricism only sharpens after what should have been a sobering brush with death. Apatow was far funnier than Seth Rogan at that age. And one can only expect that he’s less of an asshole as he approaches Adam Sandlers’. So what gives?

If Funny People is Apatow’s “O Brother Where Art Thou,” then he’s emerged from labor camp movie night not with an epiphany about the significance of broad entertainment but with serious doubts about the attainability of “true” comedy through human interaction — comedic agnosticism, we might call it. Apatow’s films contain the same stereotypes as Phillips’, albeit less of them and with less predictable results; he’s more interested in rendering stock comedy situations as believably as he can manage (the dying rich curmudgeon, the “gotcha!” pregnancy, the gawkishly chaste action figure collector), which unfortunately still isn’t all that easy to swallow. Hopefully he realizes that his last film was doomed to fail on some level: you can’t make a dramatic film by writing a comedy and sucking all the funny out of it. The fact that I still enjoyed Funny People despite all this is proof that somewhere in there Apatow remains tuned into what we’re thinking and feeling, and able to convert those fears, obsessions, and memories into a fusillade of giggles.