Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

05 August 2009

Apatow #3

The main problem with Funny People is that it really isn't all that funny. Let's get that out of the way first.

Many years ago in the eighteenth century a moralist named Sir Richard Steele decided to promote a genre of comedy which later came to be known as Sentimental Comedy. Steele famously argued that his was a genre "too exquisite for laughter," which meant that it was comedy without jokes.

Many comedies from the eighteenth century—so the traditional story goes (and I mostly believe it)—followed in Steele's mode of comedy-without-laughter. The twentieth century children of these old-school comedies are any movies that don't really make us laugh so much as they make us smile mildly and feel a little better when we leave the theater. I am thinking of movies such as, say, City Slickers or My Cousin Vinny. You get the idea: not really that funny, but we have a sort of general pleasant feeling after watching it. The good guys win; the bad guys are vanquished; all is right with the world; and the hero learns his lesson. Nearly any romantic comedy with Sandra Bullock falls under this category, as well.

Funny People is one of those kinds of movies. It isn't even really trying to be funny. Its only real goal is toward sentiment: to say a few words about "true" friendship (something it doesn't know much about), the importance of living one's life to the fullest (thanks, guys, I already saw American Beauty), and the way that money (and this is a lie told by rich people, of course) doesn't give a person true happiness. Funny People is so full of feelings it drove me crazy.

To be fair, all of the stuff with Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill works really well.

And Eric Bana is stellar. Fantastic, actually. This is mostly because he is the funniest character in the film.

Which is odd—don't you think?—with Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan, and Leslie Mann headlining?

I want to say one more thing about Funny People and that is about sex. This will get a little spoilerish, so don't read on if you don't want me to spoil it. I wasn't the biggest fan of The 40 Year Old Virgin, but what I love about that movie is how sex-positive it is. I mean, think about it: the weirdo in that movie is the virgin. The strange person, the one who needs to learn a lesson, is the man who is afraid of sex, afraid of himself as a sexual being, the man who has mythologized sex to a place where he doesn't even want to masturbate. But then came Knocked Up, which is decidedly a sex-negative picture. The main girl gets pregnant and then never considers abortion, even though she is a television reporter. We are made to feel that the mother who counsels her to have an abortion is some kind of soulless witch. Then the girl tries to have a real relationship with this loser whose baby she is carrying simply because she is carrying his baby and—what?—the kid ought to have a mother and a father who love one another like our imagined conceptualization of the 1950s? For me, Funny People is as sex-negative as Knocked Up, though not in quite as offensive a way. To spoil things a bit, Leslie Mann cheats on her husband (Bana) with Adam Sandler, but then decides to stay with the husband for a variety of very (it seemed to me) good reasons. None of these reasons is given in the film, however; instead, Mann looks at Sandler and says "he's my husband" as if that's a reason to stay with someone you don't love.

Of course, this comes near the end of the movie. And the last 45 minutes of the film are terrible and feel tacked on to an otherwise fairly decent film. All of the critics are saying this and they are right, but what is important to emphasize here is that sometimes relationships don't work; sometimes we cheat on people; sometimes we love the people we cheat on but just make stupid decisions. But we should all be trying to be happy. Staying with someone because "we're married" is the dumbest reason I've ever heard for staying in a relationship. Even (straight) married people have a right to be happy.