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November 28, 2009

Seriously Funny People


One of the perks of being in show business is that, at the end of each year, all the movie companies send out “screener” DVDs of their best movies to writers, actors, and directors to be considered for various industry awards. For a few weeks, the mailbox overflows with very good movies I either did not get a chance to see or, in some cases, have not even been released. It’s like being in the old Columbia Record of the Month club, an institution I had forgotten about until it was brought up as a plot point in one of the movies I just watched, A Serious Man.

The Coen Brothers are the best filmmakers in the world. Any Coen Brothers movie is better than ninety-eight point three percent of all other movies. This has been scientifically authenticated in a study I just made up. Seriously: Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country For Old Men, and now A Serious Man. Nobody tackles a broader range of the American experience as consistently well or with as much literary and cinematic panache as these guys. (Yes, I just said “panache.”) Their films are always beautifully written, look magnificent, and bring out the best in whatever actors they cast, whether the biggest stars in the world or the most obscure. They are so good, they make me feel bad about myself, which admittedly, isn’t hard to accomplish.

Although I am now delighted that I did, I didn’t want to see A Serious Man. The subject matter, 1960’s American Judaism, didn’t particularly interest me. Perhaps because I am Jewish myself, Jewish life holds no special mystery or exoticism. In fact, holding Jews up to special scrutiny is a little uncomfortable for me, like seeing your family argue in public. And boy is this film Jewy. Probably the Jewiest film I’ve ever seen. This thing is just wall to wall Jews. Everywhere you look, Jew after Jew after Jew. It’s even Jewier than Schindler’s List, whose hero is a big, strapping Aryan goy. A Serious Man has no hero, only a Job-like character for whom God shows no special love. His comfortable life is undone by pettiness, familial infighting, bad advice, existential questioning, immorality, and bad luck. If the characters in A Serious Man are the chosen people, God chose the wrong people.

The film is funny and profound and at its core, both angry at the world and resigned to the futility of that anger. In other words, it contains all the ingredients of a great Jewish joke. 

Jokes are also at the heart of the other screener I watched this week, Judd Apatow’s Funny People. The film is a comedy about the lives of comedians, a subject not tackled so thoroughly in cinema since Punchline, the maudlin 1987 Tom Hanks/ Sally Fields movie with the unfortunate tagline “It only hurts when you LAUGH!”

Funny People succeeds where so many films/shows about comedy have failed in the past: although it takes comedy seriously, it stays funny. Adam Sandler plays a former stand-up comedian who has gone on to great commercial success starring in shitty high-concept Hollywood movies. In other words, he plays himself. Unlike the real Sandler, however, George is unmarried and childless, lonely and isolated in his giant Hollywood mansion.

At the beginning of the film George finds out he’s dying, and decides to get back to his roots as a stand-up, enlisting the help of a young, hungry comedian very much like his former self, played by Seth Rogan to write jokes for him and become his manservant and de facto best friend. The film deals with serious issues but never loses its self of humor or honesty, and it’s Adam Sandler’s best work to date.

I go back and forth about Judd Apatow. Not because his films aren’t good – they are - but because I think they are marketed badly. Each is sold like The Forty Year Old Virgin, a big, bawdy comedy. And while Knocked Up and Funny People certainly have big, bawdy moments, they are not what I would describe as comedies the way other Apatow-produced movies (Superbad, Pineapple Express) are comedies. They are, instead, about grown-ups struggling to navigate through the thickets of modern adulthood. As a result, sometimes it’s hard to know what to expect when you sit down for one of his movies. As a result, they are sometimes not as funny as I expect from “the guy who brought you The Forty Year Old Virgin.”

Perhaps because I had read enough about it to know what to expect, I really enjoyed Funny People. It’s the kind of movie about comedy I’ve always wanted to see, a movie that shows comedians doing what they do: being funny and inappropriate, hyper-competitive, supportive, and socially awkward. But it also shows them as real people, not caricatures or societal misfits. The film never gets mawkish or sentimental, and while it may set a record for number of dick jokes per minute, that also feels true, since nobody likes dick jokes more than comedians.

Both films are largely about community. Not incidentally, both communities depicted are outsiders: Jews and comedians (and of course, Jewish comedians, of which there are many). Both are about the loss of self in an uncertain universe. The Coen Brothers and Judd Apatow mine similar thematic territory in vastly different ways. One asks for redemption, one asks whether there is any to be found. Neither seems to have the answer, although both seem to believe that moral choices have deep moral consequences. And both films are very, very funny. Honestly, I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t see either in the theater since neither of them did very well commercially and both deserved my money. But then again, what can I say? I’m just a seriously cheap Jew.

 

 

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Nick

Great commentary and criticism. You should review more films, I think you were spot on.

auld maid

Finally saw "Funny People." Fuck you Judd Apatow, for making me love Adam Sandler in something.

I take it you never saw "Punch Drunk Love," because I refuse to believe you didn't enjoy "Punch Drunk Love."

Why didn't you like "Punch Drunk Love?" It was ballin'. Also, it was beautiful.

Staci

Great reviews. You decribed to perfection why Funny People was such a great movie. I wish I had this in my back pocket when everyone who didn't 'get' this movie asked me why I thought so highly of it and Adam Sandler's performance. So many people missed the fact that this movie wasn't intended to be funny the way 40 Year Old Virgin was funny, and I think it was definitely a problem with the marketing. The early trailers for the movie had no pretenses. It was a serious movie. The later trailers that came closer to the film's release made it look like a comedy start to finish. I would have liked to have seen Funny People have more success than it did.

Camille

Your reviews make me eager to see both of these.

Challah!

Jaime

Hey auld maid -- I love _Punch Drunk Love_. I'm still waiting for my husband to pull out the hottest weirdest coolest sweetest love line on me that ever existed, coined in that movie: "You are so beautiful. I love you so much I want to smash your face in with a sledgehammer." I love that line.

Very nice review MIB. I haven't seen either movie. And now I hope to. You rock. I'm back and forth on Apatow. I actually wasn't that into 40-yr-old virgin, and Sandler's rash of sagging family films makes me lose faith in him. But _Knocked Up_ made me fall in love with Apatow. No matter how many gay, ball, weiner, pot jokes are in it, they're ancillary, because it feels more like just a very sweet and lovely story at its heart. And that surprised me. And I love surprises.

So, thank you for the recommendations. I wouldn't have considered them otherwise. Also, I like how you braided those reviews together at the end. Clever. You're such hot shit when you flash your writer-man skillz around -- playerrr. Thanks :)

Reen

Wow. Fantastic.

Your review is so in-depth...exhaustive...
thorough.

Paul

I've been meaning to comment on a Michael Ian Black post for a while now, and finally I feel 100% committed. Perhaps it's the bowl of salvia I just smoked, I'm not quite sure.

Either way, I just wanted to say how much I love Barton Fink. That movie kicks it off for sure!!!

Z

Great blog and Camille's "Challah!" made me laugh.

Christina

Great, now I have to go and see Funny People! Thanks a lot!

manobon

Great reviews! I saw Funny People the night it came out, because I read reviews that said it Wasn't a "bawdy" comedy- which is what early reviews had issues with. "Instead of having non-stop laughs, they get into this whole Character Development dealie towards the end- I don't get it! (FART SOUND)" And That was on Slate! (WOMP WOMP WOMMMP)

Still, one question this post brought up to me is...well, I grew up in the Most Indian town ever- Edison, NJ. Clearly, I -being Indian- was part of the physical majority. However, I still felt like/knew I was part of the 'minority', because White still was and is the new White. What I haven't come to understand is where the "outsider" status of Jews/Judaism comes from. I hope that wasn't offensive- I just don't see it...primarily because whenever I watch television/movies, or read books/comics, I'm consuming the products or performances of very successful Jewish comedians, writers, producers, etc. The only "media product" I consume that does not seem to directly come from Jewish persons would have to be music. And I'm pretty sure there's Some way to make Rivers Cuomo an honorary Jew.

Maybe MIB could write a post about where the outsider status comes from? Or, If there can be an argument against such a status, considering "White" usually connotes Christianity?

...or maybe more dick jokes- Whatevs!

Reen

Manobon, I hope that someday Michael "goes there", too. I'm always on board with his political blogs and would very much welcome anything along the lines of religion and/or spirituality.

I agree with you. Jewish folks do well in many professions. It just never seems to matter. I'd venture to guess that Jewish folks will tell you that regardless of professional success, they, and their ancestors have been persecuted for their beliefs for...well...ever.

As you know, the "Christians" persecuted the Jews for not believing the same way they did about Jesus and blamed them for His crucifixion. What has always bothered me is that Christianity, in essence, stems from Judaism. Both believe in the same God of Abraham and have more in common, (the entire Old Testament, for example) than not. But, instead of focusing on similarities, which would be the tolerant, loving, and accepting thing to do, the choice was made to emphasize only the differences and to place blame where blame was not warranted. This persecution continued during Nazi Germany. And except for Mel Gibson and his Dad, the rest of us know, without a doubt, millions were killed due to horrific acts of genocide.

So it seems to me the Jews have always been pushed to the outside. Michaels take on that would be an intriguing read.

While we're making with the wish lists, I also was hoping to read something about his thoughts on religious zealouts, like Megan Phelps. Maybe tie all that in together?

So, Michael - fingers crossed she frustrates you enough to spew one out.

manobon

Thanks for the support, Reen- I was afraid of checking back on the comments to find, "go back to India, you FOOKING TERRORIST NAZI!!" or something.

And yeah, the whole "Judaism, Christianity, and Islam sharing the same premises/Story!" thing makes all the warring after that seem kind of ridiculous. To paraphrase Patton Oswalt, we can ALL have SkyCake!

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Funny people... yes indeed its funny and it accomplishes its overly publicized goal of portraying funny people in their art form at their very best and at their very real"ist." However what's subtly astounding about the film is its ability to keep you involved, interested, personally invested, even as it passes its corporately ruled timing of 1 hour and 48 minutes.

Reen

Anytime manobon. I can tell you're a thinker, and NOT a stinker.

If I've learned one thing, it's to keep asking questions. And as far as bringing questions to Michael here? Look at it like bringing questions to the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz! For surely after our long journey he'll deny us not!

Honestly? He's not going to actually answer any of our questions. BUT...you can almost feel him answering you, can't you? (Through all the deafening silence, I mean.)

tee-hee

Ryan S. Marin

Who cares about the "actual movie" part of Funny People? Everyone is overlooking the fact that Funny People gave us the wonderful online series featuring RAAAAAAAANDY!!!!!!!!!
Also, go back to India, you FOOKING TERRORIST NAZI!! India, New Jersey that is. (?) Is it yellow in here or am I just in 1930's Southern California?

Camille

I started to watch Funny People and about 5 minutes into it I stopped. I had to wait for my husband to watch it with me because I could tell it was going to be a good one.
It was really long.....and good.

Panty Filth

I was dragged by my anus to see PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. What was it about? I forgot. Did Adam Sandler beat up somebody?

Maybe I just didn't get it -- again! The last movie I got was IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, especially the scene when Mary Hatch Baily gave George a pre-marital blow job.

I mostly enjoy porn movies featuring mature women with three tits.

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I read that The Qur'an mentions crucifixion several times. In Surah 7:124, Firaun(Arabic for Pharaoh) says that he will crucify his chief wizards. Also, Surah 12:41 mentions Prophet Yusuf(Joseph) saying that the king would crucify one of his prisoners.

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I have seen Judd Apatow’s Funny People, is great. Nice article, very informative. I will look for Coen Brothers movies.

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A Serious Man has no hero, only a Job-like character for whom God shows no special love. His comfortable life is undone by pettiness, familial infighting, bad advice, existential questioning, immorality, and bad luck. If the characters in A Serious Man are the chosen people, God chose the wrong people.

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