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.