Tag Archives: Comedy

Review: Funny People

Funny People is a movie I wanted to love, but just couldn’t.  Judd Apatow I have a lot of affection for as a filmmaker (Knocked Up is my least favourite of his, but Freaks and Geeks is easily one of my favourite TV shows), and I generally agree with the critics who laud his ability to balance juvenile comedy with legitimate drama, though I find myself much more drawn to the drama.  And his approach to Directing is one I take myself; maximum collaboration with an emphasis on improvisation.

Funny People is about Adam Sandler playing a darker version of himself, ostensibly.  He lives alone and has a fundamentally meaningless existence.  Anonymous sex, making mindless high-concept comedies (such as Mer-man and My Best Friend, The Robot), and famous “friends”.  When he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness, he returns to his stand-up roots.  When his alarmingly dark routine falls flat, up-and-coming comic Seth Rogen essentially follows his act by riffing on how dark Sandler’s routine was.  Then Sandler decides to take Rogen under his wing/employ as a writer and personal assistant as he tries to figure out what the end of his life is going to look like.  It’s a comedy, to be sure, but Apatow takes an intentional turn towards drama this time, and there’s some fairly dark scenes in an otherwise lighthearted look at death and fame.

There’s essentially three major plotlines that make up Funny People.  There’s Sandler’s dealing with his impending mortality and his relationship with Rogen, Rogen and his comedian roommates and friends, and Sandler trying to win back his long lost love (Leslie Mann, now married with children to Eric Bana).  And frankly, there’s close to enough material in all three for their own movie; I’d certainly say that Apatow could have done a full-length tale of Rogen balancing his life at home and with Sandler and a fairly economical, but separate, film about Sandler’s character at Leslie Mann and Eric Bana’s house.  And that’s really the problem with Funny People.

All three plotlines are well executed, and it’s to Judd Apatow’s credit is that the world he establishes is one that I wanted to keep watching.  But the movie is two and a half hours long, and as a result, it’s just… excessive.  The best parts of the movie are among Apatow’s best overall, and while there’s no fluff here, per se, the final product feels like it could use a less loving edit.  Maybe that’s the danger in writing such a personal project; you don’t want to leave anything out.

That’s really my only beef with the movie, but it goes without saying that a movie that’s too long is a big problem to have.  The movie, however, does have it’s share of praiseworthy elements.  Apatow’s shift towards a more mature tone, by and large, works.  There’s no serious gross-out moments, and while it has a lot of dirty jokes, the bulk of them are in stand-up footage.  Rogen and his roommates bear few resemblances to, say, Rogen and his roommates in Knocked Up (save Jonah Hill being in both).  Rogen’s performance shows a lot of growth as well.  As with most Apatow films, the heavy improvisation makes the performances feel more natural, and that definitely works in favour of the film this time; where the improvisations are and where scripted dialogue made the final cut only Apatow knows for sure, but the dialogue never sounds forced or “written”.

There’s a lot to like in Funny People.  Subtle “moments” pop up here and there, performances are solid, and Apatow has largely jettisoned the sorts of things that would have put his career at a standstill had he just made another Knocked Up clone with the same affable manchild characters (the most childish character is also the least likable this time around) and gross-out humour.  But it feels like what could have been here is better than the final product.

B-

Rental reviews Run Fatboy Run Where in the World is Osama bin Laden

Run Fatboy Run – 2007 (dir. David Schwimmer) I greatly enjoy stories of actors who willfully drop way off the public radar to pursue something they really enjoy.  For example:  Michael Palin of the Monty Python troupe has done a handful of acting gigs since the group disbanded for good some decades back, but his main passion seems to be travel.  Obviously having the BBC bankroll and film your global escapades helps a lot, but he obviously had no intent to cash in on his fame by just taking on whatever projects come his way.  The same is true of Friends star David Schwimmer.

Save a particularly memorable role in Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s World War 2 miniseries Band of Brothers, Schwimmer has been keeping a very low profile since the show ended in 2004 by working primarily in the theatre and taking some stabs at directing.  Run Fatboy Run is his first Directorial effort for the screen, however.

The premise of the film is that Dennis Doyle (Simon Pegg) is a hapless mallcop who made the mistake of leaving his pregnant fiance Libby (Thandie Newton) at the altar five years ago.  He’s spent those five years doting on his son (though certainly an atypical father) and running the wrong way in life.  See what I just did there?  The movie does it, too.  After meeting Libby’s new boyfriend, the impossibly perfect Whit (Hank Azaria), Dennis decides that he needs to run a marathon to not just win Libby back, but get his life back on track.  Another running metahpor, I know.  But the movie’s about running, both literal and metaphorical.

David Schwimmer spent ten years intimately involved on Friends, and it shows.  It’s a very economical comedy in a number of ways.  Impressively, it never gets too self-involved with it’s own jokes.  A good example of this is the lockerroom scene between Pegg and Azaria.  A lesser director (and lesser actors) would have made every possible penis joke, but Pegg wisely gives a few choice reactions and Azaria never overplays it.  The blister scene seemed out of place at best (especially since it’s a far cry from a gross-out comedy), but it had a number of charming comic moments all the same, as well as one of the funniest fight scenes I’ve seen in a while.

But what really makes a comedy work are the moments that aren’t funny.  And the last act of Run Fatboy Run is comprised mainly of these.  And it works.  Scwimmer tries some clever scenes, and while they’re not flawless, they’re fun to watch, and they keep things interesting.  And it shows a lot of promise.

But it’s still a little bit short of being as good as it could have been.  I can forgive the Nike product placement, as Schwimmer told the AV Club that it was the only way to finance the marathon, and I don’t really care that Simon Pegg isn’t technically fat.  But it wasn’t a total wash, and there’s some good laughs to be had.

B-

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? – 2008 (dir. Morgan Spurlock) It’s so easy to call Morgan Spurlock the heir apparent to Michael Moore.  Too easy.  Both started their documentary careers from an underdog perspective (Moore went after General Motors, and Spurlock went after McDonalds as relative amateurs).  And both have worked on the small screen, as well as the big screen (Moore’s The Awful Truth and Spurlock’s 30 Days).  And both have political views best described as liberal (Moore’s been incredibly outspoken in his criticism of American conservatism, and Spurlock’s a card-carrying member of the ACLU).

The differences between them are, on paper, minimal.  But while Michael Moore is effectively a pundit with a multi-picture deal, Spurlock seems genuinely interested in generating dialogue about the subjects he explores.  But perhaps more importantly, Moore’s opinion dictates his films, but with Spurlock, it seems more like his experience is what runs the show.  Sure, he doesn’t shy away from presenting opinions, but that’s not his endgame.  On 30 days, he tackles heavy political issues head on, but he lets the dialogue between the two groups tell the story.  While he’s been accused of picking people who will come to his understanding of the issues, at least he’s presenting the view that most political issues are nowhere near as black and white as the media and politicians present.  It’s activist entertainment for moderates, if anything.

And that’s generally what he proposes with Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden.  As he attempts to explore the causes and consequences of Osama Bin Laden in Egypt, Morrocco, Israel/Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it becomes very clear that it’s an immensely complex problem.  It’s a bold choice for a follow-up to eating McDonalds for a month to dive right into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and radical Islam, but the results speak for themselves.  Two scenes in particular were disturbing; Spurlock’s appallingly harsh welcome to a Jewish settlement in Israel, and a chilling interview with two Saudi teenagers (under the direct supervision of their teachers).  Obviously, those who prefer a black and white view of foreign policy will have difficulty with Spurlock’s conclusion, and American foreign policy takes a lashing, but it’s still an entertaining, if somewhat troubling documentary.

A-

Weekend rentals

I rented three movies this weekend.  There’s no real link between them, save being movies I haven’t seen before, but wanted to.  Rather than three longer entries, here’s three shorter reviews:

State and Main – 2000 (Dir. David Mamet)

I’ve been somewhat familiar with David Mamet for around the last decade or so, but I know more about him by way of reputation than his actual work (although my first serious acting lessons culminated in a scene from his play American Buffalo).  He’s known for his dialogue, and his directorial obsession with dialogue (down to having actors rehearse their lines to a metronome).  State and Main is his most recent comic directorial effort, starring an ensemble cast of fairly well-known names.  It’s about the lead-up to a movie crew filming in small-town Vermont.  While it’s billed as an ensemble piece (and due to the number of characters present, it technically is), it’s a bit less easily defined than that.  If anything, it’s a William H. Macy-lead (never a bad thing) comedy with a standout performance by a younger Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the film-within-the-film’s rookie screenwriter.  While Alec Baldwin and Sarah-Jessica Parker have small roles as the impossibly selfish lead actors (to match Macy’s impossibly selfish Director), the bulk of the scenes are not a biting satire of Hollywood amorality (which is present, but subdued if anything), but a love story between Hoffman and Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet’s wife and frequent star).  It’s simple, sweet, and/but impossibly perfect.

But this is a Mamet flick, so dialogue is the intended star.  And it generally is.  It’s fast-paced, witty, and very clever.  Too clever in some cases.  While Hoffman gives a great performance (understated to be sure, but it fits the character), and Pidgeon matches him with every epigram, it felt like Sarah-Jessica Parker and Alec Baldwin were underused.  Baldwin’s scenes with Julia Stiles (playing an underaged fan of Baldwin’s) are just too short to really justify the sort of chaos they later cause.  I suppose an argument could be made that the movie is meant to be shown through the eyes of William H. Macy and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who are by and large oblivious to his indiscretions, but it’s not made clear enough that this is the case.  I guess the whole just isn’t the sum of it’s parts in this case.  The level of talent is present, and there’s some great scenes to be found, but it doesn’t add up to the satire of/small town take on Hollywood decadence that it was trying to be.  It’s closer to the latter than the former, but it’s still just close.  B-

Smart People – 2008 (Dir. Noam Murro)

Smart People flew fairly under-the-radar following it’s release earlier this year, despite it being the first release of note starring Ellen Page since her Oscar nomination for Juno.  It’s kind of a shame that it didn’t get much notice, because it’s a very well done, low key dramedy (I assume that’s the correct spelling).  It skews more towards drama than the DVD art suggests, but it’s not without laughs.  Dennis Quaid plays an aloof english professor, who’s also a single dad looking to move his career and his personal life forward.  After an embarrassing injury at an impound lot, Quaid loses his ability to drive (legally, anyway) and a large chunk of his self-reliance.  Enter Thomas Hayden-Church as his luckless adopted brother Chuck, who is effectively hired as his personal driver.  Of course, he also winds up being something of a catalyst for the change the family needs.  Otherwise it’d be a boring movie about people impossible to relate to.

It’s similar to In Good Company, another similarly low-key movie starring Dennis Quaid.  But the difference here is that it’s more of an ensemble piece.  In Good Company was more or less a compare/contrast of one man leaving the prime of his career and another entering it.  Smart People explores not just Quaid and Hayden-Church’s different paths, but Ellen Page and Ashton Holmes’ as Quaid’s children.  Throw in love interest Sarah Jessica Parker, and you get a fairly broad study of a family in need of a wake-up call more than a middle-aged career man coming to terms with turning fifty.

It comes close to getting cheesy in the last act, but what keeps things interesting is how it presents a reality that not everybody is willing (or able) to change who they are.  Dennis Quaid is still arguably the same arrogant academic that he was at the beginning, but he’s at least aware of it and working on it.  Ellen Page remains relatively unchanged as well, but more aware that things are in flux.  It takes Uncle Chuck to get them all on the path to self-improvement, but the movie doesn’t cop out by showing us a happy ending where everyone ceases to be selfish, but an ending where nobody’s content to remain oblivious to it anymore.  Which could be frustrating or refreshing, depending on your perspective.  It’s not a unique look into the situation, but it’s a well-done character-driven story, and I’m always a fan of that, no matter how low-key.  B

I also rented Michael Clayton, but due to a DVD malfunction, that review remains pending.

Burn after reading

I’ve always been sort of an admirer of the Coen Brothers.  Not a full-fledged fan, as I’ve only seen a handful of their movies, but I’ve had a healthy respect for their technique and ability to forge a unique style of their own.

Out with the old, and in with the new, I say.  After seeing Burn After Reading, I’m a big fan.  In fact, they’re now firmly in my top five filmmakers (among Martin Scorsese, Kevin Smith, PT Anderson, and Wes Anderson).  The thing that struck me with Burn After Reading is that, while it’s not as ambitious or mood-driven as No Country for Old Men, it’s effectively everyone involved playing to their strengths.  Word on the street is that each role was written with a specific actor in mind (all of whom played that character in the final product), and it definitely shows.

The film is about adultery, blackmail, depression, and online dating.  And probably the funniest movie about those subjects I’ve seen.  Brad Pitt’s performance as dull-witted personal trainer Chad is probably the standout, with a ridiculous hairdo and severely limited vocabulary, but there’s really no weak link in the cast.  George Clooney playing a womanizer isn’t much of a stretch, but when the stakes start rising (and rise they do), he’s more than up to the task.  Same for John Malkovich, always on the edge of going medieval on the nearest object.  JK Simmons, however, comes closest to stealing the show as a deadpan CIA higher-up forced to make sense of the madness that ensues from some stolen memoirs and an internet hook-up.

But cast, direction, and editing aside, what really makes this movie work is the music.  No Country for Old Men had no score to speak of (granted, it was able to rely on Javier Bardem to set the mood), but Burn After Reading is made all the more enjoyable by the animated score by Carter Burwell, a frequent Coens collaborator.  It’s not a subtle score, but it’s the perfect match for the slapstick violence and larger than life tone of the movie.

It’s ridiculously funny, and incredibly well executed.  But what’s really impressive is knowing that had the Coens decided to make it a tense, mood-driven drama, it would have been just as good. Burn After Reading is absolutely night and day compared to No Country for Old Men, but they’re both fantastic movies.  While some have called Burn After Reading a spiritual sequel to The Big Lebowski, I’d compare it to an earlier work:  Raising Arizona.  Simpletons getting in way over their heads + consequences they didn’t expect = comedy.  A basic premise, to be sure, but for whatever reason, the Coens seem to do it better than everyone else.  The Coens aren’t infallaible to be sure.  They’ve had their share of flops.  But when they get it right, they really nail it.  And they wind up making some of my favourite movies when they do.

A

Tropic Thunder rain of madness

Before the release of Tropic Thunder, there was a largely viral trailer for Rain of Madness, a companion mockumentary. I suppose the intention was that it would be to Tropic Thunder what Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse was to Apocalypse Now. Since the movie was more or less mocking big war movies like Apocalypse Now, it made sense. However, I assumed (incorrectly) that should Rain of Madness ever see the light of day, it would be as a DVD/Blu-Ray (I guess I have to start mentioning both formats now). Not only is that not the case, but it’s also a free download on iTunes.

Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t get me as excited as it did. But truth be told, Rain of Madness is better than the movie it’s derived from. My key complaint with Tropic Thunder was largely with how off-putting the celebrity cameos were. It weakened the satire and took me out of the movie (only to bring me back in with some legitimately great scenes). Rain of Madness emphasizes the stuff I liked (albeit in a different way), and effectively reinforces the satire. The mockumentary is, unlike the film, also played completely straight. It’s very, very dry. Not surprisingly, it was actor Steve Coogan, and not Ben Stiller, who was the creative force behind it.

As disappointing as Tropic Thunder was, Rain of Madness takes away some of the sting. It’s vastly different in tone and presentation, but it’s funny and engrossing. It also manages to satirize self-important documentary filmmakers and skewer further method actors and oscar-baiters, to the point of absolute absurdity (which was what I was really hoping for in the real movie), with Robert Downey jr. losing his shit in a hotel room, and more scenes from Simple Jack.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s worth the price. The eventual video release of Tropic Thunder should see it packaged with the DVD, and I think knowing that will make it easier for me to recommend , but until then, it is on iTunes, and it’s fantastic. It takes some jokes too far, but given the context, that’s not a huge problem.

B+

Film Review Tropic Thunder

Given how incredibly over-exposed celebrities are, especially in contrast to how little work some appear to do, it’s surprising how seldom the darker side of Hollywood is discussed.  No, not alcoholism, cocaine binges, and sex tapes.  Oscar baiting.  Oscar baiting is a difficult topic to bring up because it can result in some politically incorrect opinions.  And frankly, sometimes it’s just easier to lie and accept pandering as talent.

Tropic Thunder, however, takes a well-deserved stab at actors who are perpetually searching for Oscar gold not via talent, but via working Academy politics.  It’s something worthy of not just mockery, but a flat-out indictment.  It’s been done before, to a degree.  Kate Winslet’s cameo on Ricky Gervais’ Extras took on the big gun: holocaust movies.  Holocaust Oscar-bait is generally the easiest target, but Tropic Thunder director and star Ben Stiller wisely avoids the subject, since Holocaust movies are (regardless of intention) generally not offensive to the subject.  The same cannot be said for the Hollywood types that Stiller skewers.

Tropic Thunder opens with fake ads and trailers: always a good sign.  Brandon T. Jackson’s Alpa Chino (yeah, I know..) hocks an energy drink called “booty sweat”.  Then  Stiller’s Tugg Speedman appears in a trailer for the one-liner driven actioner Scorcher VI, which is classy enough to use roman numerals, but stupid enough to be a fifth sequel.  The Fatties- Fart Two features Jack Black’s Jeff Portnoy as a host of characters in fatsuits and bad makeup farting perpetually.  And finally, One-time Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr’s 5-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus stars as a gay monk alongside Tobey Maguire in the art-house Satan’s Alley.

Cut to an epic battle in Vietnam.  Which cuts to director Damien Cockburn having an epic hissy-fit on the set of Tropic Thunder, based on the autobiography of Nick Nolte’s “Four Leaf” Tayback.  At the suggestion of Four Leaf, Damien Cockburn decides to send the cast into the jungle and shoot the film guerilla-style with hidden cameras.  Hilarity, danger, and self-discovery ensues.

Tropic Thunder works less often that it should.  Mainly because it’s trying to be two different movies.  It’s a legitimate action flick, despite parodying them, but it’s also a goofy comedy.  And while I’ve made no secret of my love for the recent trend of homage/parody movies, the goofier elements of it fall flat.  But first the good:  Ben Stiller’s not normally known for his directing, but it’s a really impressive feat, given the scale of some of the scenes.  A lot’s been made of Robert Downey Jr’s blackface performance, and it’s very impressive.  But it’s largely the lesser-known actors who made the biggest impression on me.  Jay Baruchel, who starred in Judd Apatow’s Undeclared and Knocked Up, very nearly steals a number of scenes as the only actor in the bunch who actually takes his job seriously.  And similarly, Brandon Jackson is able to match Downey in their scenes together.  Jack Black and Ben Stiller are in familiar territory, and there aren’t any real surprises from either of them in this one, but they’re not phoning it in either.

The problems come when the story deviates from the actors and crew in the jungle.  Stiller cast Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaghey in the two largest support roles, and it’s jarring to switch from Downey et al so immersed in their roles to Cruise and McConaghey effectively just having fun on set.  Celebrity cameos made sense in Zoolander, but they just didn’t work in Tropic Thunder.  What impressed me in the movie wasn’t how many celebrity friends Ben Stiller could persuade into making an appearance, but how many great performances were found in such a ridiculous situation.

But still, it’s effectively the Robert Downey Jr. show.  It takes an incredible actor to achieve subtlety while playing an actor who changed his skin colour for a movie.  It’s kind of a shame that Stiller took an easy comedy route by having Tom Cruise yell profanities in a fat suit when there’s so many great aspects that could have been more dominant.  But it’s a well-deserved attack on actors and producers who play politics for fame and fortune when it works, it in those instances, it works really well.

B-

Review Pineapple Express

Much has been made of how Judd Apatow has changed the face of R-rated comedy from teen comedies with bodily fluid jokes and Blink-182 soundtracks.  Apatow – primarily as a producer, but perhaps more effectively as a director – has been able to make movies that are able to waffle between high-comedy, low-comedy, and legitimate drama.  It’s something he started on TV with the downright flawless Freaks and Geeks and the slightly less flawless, but equally entertaining Undeclared, the casts of which appear in many of his movies now.

However, when I saw Pineapple Express, it did fit it nicely with Judd Apatow’s body of work (albeit the first one with a car chase and large explosions).  But it reminded me more of another contemporary filmmaking team I adore:  Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg.  Pineapple Express could hang with Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz just as easily as Superbad or The 40-Year-Old Virgin.  Aside from it being a faithful and respectful homage to buddy-action flicks like Lethal Weapon, it’s also got the fish-out-of-water thing down.  Pineapple Express does for lazy stoners caught in a drug war what Shaun of the Dead did for slackers caught in a zombie (yeah yeah, don’t use the Z-word…) outbreak.  It walks the fine line of demonstrating how ridiculous the genre really is without mocking it, and by being a solid entry in the genre overall.

And then you have the issue of how Apatow and Wright share an approach to male friendship.  In the end, both Pineapple Express and Shaun of the Dead are about male friendship.  Seth Rogen and James Franco had their work cut out for them in making their mostly ridiculous characters appear to have a real connection that would eventually manifest itself in risking eachothers lives for the sake of the other.  As strange as it sounds, Pineapple Express and Shaun of the Dead are both just as much examinations of friendship as they are parodies.

It is, ultimately, in the hands of Seth Rogen and James Franco to make the movie work.  The script is genuinely funny, but the overall product wasn’t as tight or polished as Edgar Wright’s homage-buddy flicks.  It’s overall package is consistent, however.  But again, the cast is what really makes it work.  Thank God James Franco is in a strong comic role again.  As much as I enjoyed the Spider-man films (even the third one, though not without a number of qualifiers), Franco just seemed out of place in such a dark role.  To me, he’ll always be Nick Andopolis.  This is probably as close as I’ll get to seeing that sort of performance from Franco again, barring some sort of 10th anniversary Freaks and Geeks reunion movie in 2010.

I also feel compelled to mention the ever-impressive Ed Begley, jr as Seth Rogen’s girlfriend’s father.  He’s basically on the edge of completely flipping out the entire time, but never actually goes full-tilt crazy and it’s definitely a scene-stealing performance.

All in all, it’s a really entertaining movie.  And I’m saying this as someone who saw it with no chemicals in his system besides caffeine.

B+