Thursday, May 19, 2016

Theory Thursday: "Funny People" is Underrated

Scene from Funny People
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Funny People is underrated.

Left to right: Eminem and Adam Sandler
In the realm of comedy, there's few puzzles as confusing as the career of Seth Rogen. It isn't by any means that he is a bad actor. However, it's more that he started out as the dumpy best friend who smoked weed, cursed, and threw around pop culture references at ease. In general, this career path has tended to lose relevance by the 10 year mark. However, we're more than a decade out from his breakout movie role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and he's still opening movies like Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising not only with solid box office figures expected, but critical acclaim. Add in that he starred in the underrated Steve Jobs last year as well as getting into shape for his own superhero film (The Green Hornet), it's a career path that is unexpected yet is reflective of someone who has adapted to the culture. He almost started World War III with The Interview and still has managed to remain a viable figure. Seriously, this type of career shouldn't work, less likely exist.

In my opinion, Rogen is a genius comedian. It is largely in part because he initially started himself down the lucky path by knowing the right people on Freaks and Geeks (which would define Hollywood by the next decade's end). However, his real appeal comes in his ability to evolve from the stoner friend into something that is more indicative and human. One could look at 50/50 and see him playing a 20-something whose friend (Joseph Gordon Levitt) has cancer. It's Terms of Endearment with raunchy humor. It also gives Rogen a chance to be vulnerable as he deals with his friend's grief. While he still plays the wild characters from time to time, there was a certain maturity that seeped into his best work. Even Neighbors worked because there was a strong subtext about how parenting wears you out. More than any comedian, he embodies the 20/30-something experience for the modern era. In cinema, his characters seem to age with the audience. One can only assume that he'll lose relevance, but he'll still be making the most engaging movies for his demographic when he's in his 50's and on the verge of playing the dreaded Betty White-type roles.

Even if Rogen is a divisive figure, it doesn't feel controversial to call him a genius. Instead, I am choosing to spend this week's column arguing about which one of his films is severely underrated. In a career that has its ups and downs, there are few films of his that are as maligned as director Judd Apatow's Funny People. The criticism makes sense for Apatow, whose career thrived in the world of long movies. Having his third entry be his longest to date didn't help the matter that it also featured Adam Sandler in one of his more complicated roles (which is not saying much, but still) at a time when his audience was starting to turn on him. The complaints that it was two movies in one (a stand-up comedy, and a cancer drama) didn't help matters all the more. The man who had ushered in longer comedies inevitably became the victim of criticism for this very act here. The film bombed and ushered in an era where Apatow went from savant to pariah as a director with his following feature This is 40 doing even worse, and his latest (Trainwreck) serviced more as an Amy Schumer vehicle than evidence of his talent as the crass James L. Brooks of the modern era.

In fairness, Funny People remains the most self-indulgent of Apatow's films. Those who dislike his other work clearly will take offense here. However, it also embodies what the director did best. He could bring an ensemble together not only to tell jokes, but present a complicated, heartfelt story that serviced at times more as a hangout flick. Yes, it is a film about stand-up comedians, and it does feature plenty of that. However, it captures something more personal and honest. Most of the central cast were stand-up comedians or performers in some respect who understood the struggle. Rogen plays a character who works at a grocery store making sandwiches and becomes friends with his mentor (Adam Sandler). It's a case where the phrase "Don't meet your idols." applies greatly and things only go from there. There's plenty of competitive stand-up routines by up-and-comers like Aziz Ansari and Aubrey Plaza. Almost everything in the film has a backstory, and it's impossible to find any fault when every character contributes something.

It is true. The film is technically two radically different ideas stapled together. The first half establishes Rogen and Sandler's relationship among the stand-up circuit as Sandler gets diagnosed with cancer. The latter half features Sandler atoning for his misdeeds to his ex (Leslie Mann) with almost no traces of the first half. It may even be frustrating because while Sandler's character does make a recovery, the change of character isn't as inevitable as conventional dramas would suggest. He merely goes on being somewhat of a jerk to everyone who respects him. While there is some change by the end, it isn't from the conventional methods that the audience is expecting. It comes after several fights between Rogen and Sandler, who both share a bitterness and jealousy towards the other. The film also serves as an ironic cautionary tale for Sandler's real career, as there is a subtext about his character starring in horrendous movies. It has since become a point of note as each of his new films bomb.

What makes the film work is that it is somehow an expansive view of the stand-up scene and the crippling power of bitterness in success. Rogen embodies the struggling beginner. Sandler embodies the cautionary success. Together, both find a nice middle ground, and there's a certain camaraderie that forms. There's even a Thanksgiving scene where Sandler toasts in a room full of young comedians for the fallen. Despite the film's surface level humor, every character is given a moment to have their own internal conflict explored. This may unfortunately turn some off, as it does contribute to the long running time. However, it perfects Apatow's quest to be a crass James L. Brooks. It's an ensemble with heart as well as humor. It may seem more like a Hollywood version of this story than the TV series Louie, but speaking as Apatow grew up in this scene, it's told by someone whose earnestness adds a certain authenticity. Even in the realm of exploring cancer, 50/50 does this better.

The final complaint is that maybe the film is not a comedy, even if there's a lot of comedy. However, it strikes a compelling middle ground that feels more organic. It explores where the joke and thought comes from. It may even be difficult to see comedic actors doing more serious work underneath the humor meant to diffuse a situation. However, it works largely because it feels personal and services as a drama in ways that few films of this scale choose to. It is funny, but only in the way that humanity is. Things aren't always convenient and maybe it takes a little long for Sandler's character to evolve. However, the journey of a flawed life is one that rarely is explored on this scale with an ensemble this rich and with almost every detail having additional unseen details. Funny People comes across as a labor of love, and it explains why Apatow's likely most personal film of his five doesn't click with everyone. Not everyone has been up on a stage nor have they dealt with stubborn people quite like Sandler. It's part of the authenticity that makes it a strong growth from a director's standpoint. It likely even got Apatow to go back and do stand-up several years later.

I am sure that Funny People will be a secondary film for almost everyone involved because of its immediate maligning. However, I do think that it is an underrated film because of how it paints humanity and shows something so personal. Its humor may be a little rough at times, but it is so much in the moment and about a lifestyle that isn't common that even at its worse, it cannot be accused of being unoriginal. While I'd argue that most, if not all, of Apatow's work will be culturally dated within a decade of release, there's something invigorating about how he portrays characters in the modern era, obsessed with pop culture while suffering from the conventional drama tropes. Rogen was a pioneer of the modern version, and I think that he does excellent work here - even doing great dramatic work that predates his time in Take This Waltz and Steve Jobs. Is it Apatow or Rogen's best? Not exactly. However, it is a film that couldn't have been made by anyone else and have the same impact. It is one of the reasons why I'd recommend giving it another shot.

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