Not-So-Funny People

Photo: Tracy Bennett/Courtesy of Universal Pictures

It’s hard to believe that Judd Apatow’s sour, maudlin Funny People is only the third film he has directed. His man-child universe, with its mixture of juvenile raunch and white-bread family values, has conquered American comedy. But this film is meant to be an advance: Apatow’s first “grown-up” movie. That man-child protagonist is now in his late forties and facing death and has never had a mature relationship—never made a commitment. George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a stand-up comedian turned dumb-comedy movie star, is diagnosed with a fatal cancer and copes by returning to his old club haunts and baffling people with sardonic free-associations. He picks up a youthful protégé, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who’s meant to be the stand-in for us mortals in the audience: flattered by access to celebrity and dazzled by its perks (private planes, women) but increasingly appalled by the star’s selfishness. Even as the scared and lonely George tries to atone for past misdeeds, he radiates entitlement. Sick or well, he’s dead inside.

Playing dead is tricky, but Sandler gives it a go. He barely opens his mouth when he talks, as if he’s too powerful to expend the effort—he knows people will lean in. He’s very touching when he asks Ira to sit by his bed and converse until he falls asleep, like a rich baby who can hire someone to coddle him. (He does a good sleepy-baby voice.) Sandler isn’t afraid of plumbing his dark side, but Apatow fails him: Scenes of George’s self-pity drag on too long, and as the character loses stature, Sandler recedes from his own vehicle. Rogen doesn’t fill the vacuum. He’s wrong for the part of the male ingenue: He looks pained, as if he’s laboring to hold his gee-whiz expression in place.

It would help if the characters had distinctive worldviews as comedians, but their routines have no juice. Ira’s are all about dick size, and Apatow cuts away from George’s just when they start getting interesting. These men aren’t enlarged by their work; if anything, their jokes diminish them, and it’s hard to feel sympathy for people who put so little soul into their work. Apatow has been around L.A. long enough to capture how showbiz males (especially Jewish) compete with one-liners: some good, most lame, many hostile. But the banter between Ira and his more successful apartment-mates (Jason Schwartzman and the tubby Jonah Hill) grows tiresome. Funny People feels insular, as if Apatow’s whole world consists of nerdy jokesters who were angry, lonely kids who got rich beyond their dreams and fucked women who’d never have talked to them in high school but are deep down still angry.

Apatow transcended all that—and wants us to know it—by marrying Leslie Mann, who was hilarious as Katherine Heigl’s acid sister in Knocked Up and here gets quite the pedestal. She plays Laura, “the one that got away” from George and married an Australian businessman (Eric Bana). Apatow lingers on her bright eyes and darling overbite and sweet little bod, but he hasn’t given her any good lines or an interesting subtext, so what’s the point? It’s a waste of a precious resource. Laura’s children are played by Apatow and Mann’s daughters, Maude and Iris, and the casting tips you off to the fate of George and Laura’s rekindled romance: Even translated into fiction, Apatow would hardly break up his own family. George has to become a dull schmuck to conform to Apatow’s moral agenda.

Even with famous comics and musicians showing up for cameos, Funny People has no snap; it droops under the weight of that agenda. Its few lively scenes feature Bana, who’s skinny but wiry, his Aussie bonhomie bristling with menace. Aubrey Plaza has one or two moments as a cute female comedian with big glasses and a glassy demeanor that seems—given all the overbearing men—sensibly self-protective. But why don’t we see her onstage? Apatow’s comedy could use a female perspective. Funny People is so full of morbid male self-attention that when it’s over you expect to see crusty brown stains all over the screen.

Park Chan-Wook, director of the Korean art-gore vampire movie Thirst, has a gaze that’s weighty and impassive, even when he’s showering you with riotously yucko carnage and death. You laugh—but also register the emotional gravity, the extremes to which humans can be pushed. This time he opens on a religious note. The likable Song Kang-ho plays a priest so depressed by people’s depressions he volunteers as a test subject for a new vaccine. After his skin shrivels and a geyser of blood erupts from his mouth, he dies—and is resurrected by a transfusion. At first it seems he has been reborn to heal the sick, but it emerges he’s just a vampire—a nice vampire who doesn’t kill people. The first sign this is an over-the-top Park movie is when he’s under the bed of an obese man in an irreversible coma, sucking blood through a tube. The sound is to die for: loud, slurpy, very liquid. A vampire film with a pacifist vampire can get boring, so he’s swept into an affair with the traumatized young wife (Kim Ok-vin) of a childhood friend. Will he kill her allegedly abusive husband? Make her his undead bride? For all his noble intentions, the blood is about to hit the fan.

Thirst won a jury prize at the year’s Cannes Film Festival—pretty impressive for a vampire flick. The movie’s evolution from somber spiritual torment to icky body horror to fetishistic sex to wild lyricism (vampires pogoing off buildings) to Grand Guignol splatter is exhilarating. The disjunctive editing catches you off-guard, the actors surprise you with their animal intensity. But this is still basically a B horror picture with the addition of a film-noir femme fatale to spice things up. It’s fun (if overlong), but for all the noisy slurping, there’s no fresh blood.

Director Louie Psihoyos knows the secret to making a boffo activist documentary: a kick-ass narrative, surprising twists, heroes you root for, and bad guys you despise. The Cove is built like a slick caper melodrama (someone onscreen invokes Ocean’s Eleven), its protagonist a man who has sinned in his own eyes and now spends his life trying to atone. He’s Ric O’Barry, the trainer who got rich training the dolphins that would be Flipper (in the original series) and had a crisis of conscience when the show went off the air and one of the five dolphins who played him went into a downward suicidal spiral (really) in an aquarium tank. Dolphins, he says, don’t belong in captivity. They’re too smart, too soulful, and that smile isn’t really a smile. They’re crying on the inside.

The movie takes place on the coast of Japan in the village of Taiji, where most of the dolphins destined for the world’s aquariums are trapped. That’s bad enough, but the ones that don’t look as cute as Flipper are driven by a wall of sound into a secluded cove and … don’t come out. The cove, otherworldly in its beauty, is heavily guarded: No one gets near it when the deed is being done. The head of the International Whaling Commission and sundry Japanese lackeys deny, deny, deny—and minus pictures of the slaughter, who can prove them wrong? O’Barry and his team need footage—“a game changer.”

The Cove is that game changer. The assembly of the team—divers, technicians, getaway drivers—is stirring. When savvy folks at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic build fake rocks to hold video cameras, you’ll forgive them for The Phantom Menace. Weeks before the mission, diver Mandy-Rae Cruikshank watches a bleeding dolphin that somehow escaped the cove as it expires in the waves; as she weeps, Taiji fishermen point at her and laugh. The perfidy is infinite: The dolphin meat is saturated with mercury, which goes straight into the brains of little kids and fetuses. The killing, when seen, is indescribable. You’re almost grateful the cove turns red because the carnage is partially obscured.

The end of The Cove is as rousing as anything from Hollywood. Manipulative? Sure—but isn’t that fitting? Capitalism has driven an entire village to massacre dolphins and keep its work hidden. Now comes the exciting crossover-hit documentary to bring on the Mother of All Outrages. You can’t get away with killing Flipper: It’s the bad guys who are dead in the water.

Near the end of Geoffrey Smith’s superb documentary The English Surgeon, the title figure, Henry Marsh (he looks like a shorter John Cleese), performs brain surgery in Ukraine on a young man, and the camera gets in close on the open skull. At first I had my hands over my eyes, but as the scene went on I peeked and finally stared full on at the gray, gelatinous mass as the surgeon poked around, lifting up wet stuff in search of the huge sticky tumor that would, if left in place, eventually end the patient’s life. The man is conscious, and now and then Marsh prods a lobe to see if he can make a leg twitch—it looks kind of fun. Since up until then the film has been utterly heartbreaking, you take your laughs where you find them. For fifteen years, Marsh has traveled to Ukraine to help the underserved or the served-too-late. He has to tell women who bring in EEGs of their grandchildren that there’s nothing to be done, the tumor is on the brain stem, too advanced, inoperable. You stare at his impassive face, wondering how he can utter such words without breaking down. But he did once—he lost his objectivity and tried to operate on a young girl and made a mess of what was left of her life. He has never gotten over it. So he shows his compassion by the travel and long days and patients he sees who line up for hours. Heroes are often inscrutable, so who knows why he does what he does? All I know is the happiest sight of my week was a man with the top of his head sawed off.

In the tradition of François Truffaut, Park Chan-Wook was a film critic first. But once he started directing, he left fellow Korean filmmakers in the dust: His so-called Vengeance Trilogy works (including Oldboy, the Grand Prix winner at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival) are among Korea’s top-grossing films, despite their relentless and extreme violence. “Living without hate for people is almost impossible,” he once said. But he also makes sure “audiences understand how much suffering acts [of vengeance] cause.”

Funny People
Directed by Judd Apatow.
Universal Studios. R.

Directed by Park Chan-Wook.
Focus Features. R.

The Cove
Directed by Louie Psihoyos.
Lionsgate. PG-13.

The English Surgeon
Directed by Geoffrey Smith.
Indiepix. Unrated.


Not-So-Funny People