Judd Apatow’s Funny People is the first new movie I have seen in a long time that I can genuinely say was good. Film critics describe Funny People as the third movie in a ‘trilogy’ with 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Reading some of the reviews, especially the bad ones, makes me wonder how the fuck these people get jobs as film critics. Who the fuck pays these people and who the fuck reads them except with the same displeasure that you come across as the consequence of an innocent internet search like when you can’t help read some bigotted scrawl on a toilet stall wall? So move on if you don’t need a dose of hatorade to fire you up this timeless internet day. I am going to try and shake off some of the nastiness I am feeling by putting finger to keyboard (over the fold). I am the groundhog that is driving angry in the Groundhog Day of the cultural industry. Believe it.
Is Funny People funny? If so, then how? And why don’t some people get it?
Apatow also wrote for the short lived coming of age teen sitcom Freaks and Geeks. One of the things I liked about Freaks and Geeks was that it captured the sense of bewilderment of growing up. I imagine this is what turned off so many dumb shit potential viewers and why it got the can. People don’t want to consume cultural commodities that is costing them time out of their precious self-indulgent lives by being asked to sympathise with a disposition of questioning self-discovery. To have some awareness of one’s banal mediocrity and the exceptional pointlessness of one’s life is not what popular culture is meant to do. Only art challenges us to reflect and forces us to move into thought so we grasp at something ungraspable. Fuck the audience.
Funny People does something similar. I am reminded of comedian Steve Martin’s description of how he realised that comedy was a kind of ritualised rhythmic build up of affective tension with the punch line as the socialised trigger for the release of tension through laughter and whatever. Martin talked about how he worked to develop a stand up routine defined by a lack of punchlines and socialised triggers that would inform the audience of the appropriate moment to release the tension. When the audience laughed it was a genuine laugh that was not disciplined by the social conventions of comedy.
If a verbal joke is imagined as a discursive line that manipulates the build up an affective tension, then Funny People weaves together simultaneously a number of these lines. The humour multiplies along various lines all with different rhythms and different tensions. Hence, Betsy Sharkey’s negative review in the LA Times where she suggests Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen ‘wander aimlessly’. Failing to meet comedic expectations and actually providing new ones are two different things, Betsy.
Funny People has a perculiar filmic rhythm because of its treament of the comedic rhythm. Aparow works with his actors and editors to to explore the limits of timing. Probably the best example of the worst use of timing in recent history is Michael Bay’s Transformers 2. Michael Bay has no fucking idea how to take care of the money shot. Instead he crafts ‘movies’ so audiences lapse into a state of overstimulated boredom, like the eyelids-peeled Beethoven-brain washing scene from Clockwork Orange, but with a couple of realised teenage male wet dreams and cartoon racist-robot violence. Fuck Michael Bay and his clumsy super-budget blockbuster shit that date-rapes the memories of my childhood. The only thing I am thankful for when it comes to Transformers 2 is that I know if that ‘movie’ is the only thing I have to complain about, then my life is fucking awesome.
On the other hand, Judd Apatow knows how to use rhythm and tension in creative ways. Film critics talk about this in terms of ‘writing’. As if you could capture in discursive form the timing of a joke? ‘Writing’ is the wrong word for this. Cinematic timing is distributed across the writing, direction, actor performance and post-production editing. There are different levels of timing at work within Funny People. There is the interplay of socially structured expectations at play within stand up with the multiplicity of rhythms in the non-stand up durations of the film. There are the movements of characters as they transition from certain combinations of relations in the start of the film to where they end up. Lastly, there is the main plot arc around which the rest of these temporalities are organised.
The interplay of structured stand up and unstructured structure of the non-stand up comedy is a way for Apatow to explore what is unfunny. Pretty much every review I have read completely misses how fucking hilarious the unfunny moments are. A perfect example of this is the line delivered by George about a Jewish dating site, J-Date, to a woman in a bar he is trying to charm, about how he is mystified that Jews would want to be on lists, you know, cause of the Holocaust. The perfect unfunniness of this and brilliant comedic timing is only let down by the inability of the actress to deliver a believable look of disgust. Then there are the jokes that are not funny but play as funny within the diegetic world of the film. A good example of this is the line about the size of the hands of his ex-fiancee’s Laura played by Leslie Mann in relation to the modest size of George’s penis. The joke is not meant to be funny for actual cinematic audiences, but plays as dramatic in the context of the film’s plot. Most of the scatological jokes in the film are simlar in that they are not meant to be non-diegetically funny, the humour serves a dramatic function. The inability of critics to appreciate how the very function of humour itself is used in both comedic and dramatic ways is somewhat tragic considering that such a capacity would be an essential fucking part of a film critic’s job. The tragic irony of the film critic not getting the drama of a joke is itself funny and makes me laugh.
The main plot arc follows Adam Sandler’s character George Simmons as he attempts to deal with a potentially life threatening illness. As my regular Deleuzian readers will know, the immanence of life itself transcends individuality. George Simmons is a charmless arsehole, who wears his worldly cynicism within a naive panache for everything that he has surrendered for his life. There is an irony here that I am not sure how to express. Well I know how to express it and it begins with Manohla Dargis’s review in the New York Times who writes without seemingly understanding the self-satisfied chacter of her own review: “Thereâ€™s something irritatingly self-satisfied about â€œFunny People,â€ which explains why, though it glances on the perils of fame, it mostly affirms its pleasures. Part of this stems from the autobiographical touches.”
Manohla misses the point almost fucking entirely. If you could get any more clueless then Manohla’s so-called review then I wouldn’t believe it, well, I probably would believe it considering how stupidity is valorised in popular culture. What gets up Manohla’s goat is the audacity of Apatow to cast his friends and family in the movie. What? What the fuck are you talking about, Manohla? If you could somehow do a job where you got to work with all your mates and have a good time, then, what, you wouldn’t because the fucking ‘film critic editor’ in the fucking New York Times would poo-poo your decision? Whatever, to focus on the sweet ressentiment of Manohla’s review is to miss the important near contradiction at play in the different folds of this film between real life, the life on film, and life itself. Apatow casts his family and friends in the film but what he is trying to capture is a movement by which a dying man ceases to be a person dying and becomes but a life on the verge of being extinguished. Deleuze writes about this in his final essay:
What is immanence? A life… No one has described what a life is better than Charles Dickens, if we take the indefinite article as an index of the transcendental. A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying. Suddenly, those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love, for his slightest sign of life. Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point where, in his deepest coma, this wicked man himself senses something soft and sweet penetrating him. But to the degree that he comes back to life, his saviors turn colder, and he becomes once again mean and crude. Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death. The life of the individual gives way to an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life, that is, from the subjectivity and objectivity of what happens: a “Homo tantum” with whom everyone empathizes and who attains a sort of beatitude. It is a haecceity no longer of individuation but of singularization: a life of pure immanence, neutral, beyond good and evil, for it was only the subject that incarnated it in the midst of things that made it good or bad. The life of such individuality fades away in favor of the singular life immanent to a man who no longer has a name, though he can be mistaken for no other. A singular essence, a life…
The hiring and then bonding of George with his understudy/assistant/only friend Ira Wright (played by Seth Rogen) has baffled some ‘film critics’, such as Joe Morgenstern, whom in the Wall Street Journal writes: “Maybe George hires Ira because heâ€™s so depressed by his medical news that he thinks Ira is funny, though he is not. Maybe the point of Iraâ€™s unfunniness, and all the unfunniness to come, is that comics are lonely, desperate people (George certainly fills the bill), or that the state of contemporary stand-up is lamentableâ€”a point that the movie drives home, whether intentionally or not, with a succession of comedy scenes distinguished only by the repetitiveness and impoverishment of their scatology.” Joe certainly understands George’s desperation in the face of near-certain death, but seems to not understand Ira’s greater desperation to be successful. Hence, one of the first scenes after George hires Ira where George says that he wants Ira to kill him. Ira’s doesn’t say no, which excites George. A joke, sure, but also a test. How far will Ira go for George? Does Ira have the strength to deal with George’s shit?
At bottom, then, Funny People is a cinematic essay that uses the comedic form to capture the movement from the individual to the singular and back to the individual again. Serious business. I pity any film reviewer who doesn’t understand this because they have seen the movie without actually seeing it. They see a bunch jokes without punchlines (or too many punchlines) or they see a Hollywood friend party without seemingly being able to reflect on the character of friendship in the movie and the way it captures the impersonal singular dimension of real intimacy.