A friend of mine, whom I love, but whose view of life and books is very different from mine, has told me that if I insist on savaging Phillip Roth, which sounds to me redundant or whatever the word is that makes the adjective self-descriptive or excessive, since my dislike of him is not based on his words which are always brilliant, but his complete lack of compassion for and passion that never becomes real love so leads almost always to his savaging of women, from his, as we say in H’wood,POV., brutal and self-absorbed, says I must spell his name correctly, which is with one ‘l.’ So here goes. Philip Roth.
In the same way, I must be careful not to spell Judd Apatow with two “pp,”s as he had created in me a sense of personal loathing for someone I don’t know unmatched since Dick Cheney. I am one who grew up with a great affection for screen comedy, the wit of Preston Sturges, the oversentimental but still compelling work of Frank Capra, the brilliantly subversive satire of Stanley Kubrick, with whom I had the mitigated joy of actually working. He was charmingly mad as a hatter but unquestionably a genius, and the only good thing about his having died too soon is that he didn’t live to see what movies have become.
Which brings us to ‘Funny People,’ that I have just seen on the understated bulletin that appears in the midst of 60 Minutes has captured the weekend box-office.
My very clever, low-on-tolerance-for-crap friend Rex Reed described seeing it to me as only surpassed by bamboo shoots under the fingernails, or perhaps the other way around, surpassing them, and then I read David Denby’s review in the New Yorker, my overly esteemed magazine, and he praised it so highly, saw things in it so deep that I was unable to fall asleep, trying to figure out which of them was right, or whether they had seen the same movie. So I have decided to go myself, today. Tune in later.
LATER: As it turns out, they were both right. It is not quite Dickensian, the best of comedies and the worst of comedies, but there are elements of almost genuine humor and indisputably the pits. But that is, of course, only my opinion, and opinion is what we are really talking about here; there’s a First Amendment, we are entitled to our opinion, and people can’t be pilloried for it, except by an ignorant. confused jury in Santa Monica and a bad trial lawyer. But that is another story, one which my friend at Time Magazine says I must save for my autobiography. Meanwhile there is this movie.
To my surprise, I actually liked Seth Rogen, whom I have hitherto loathed, wondering what he was doing in movies. The easy answer to that is that movies have changed, mostly Alas, and so have audiences, so the ordinary schmuck, which Rogen appears clearly to be, perhaps gives an audience filled with ordinary schmucks the temporary license to believe that they could become comedy stars, as in olden (they ARE) days we could bathe ourselves in the comforting, non-combative darkness and believe that we, too, could become involved with that devastatingly attractive man(they seemed to be) on the screen, or, in the case of the boys who had pin-ups, the woman. The basis for fandom. In Rogen’s case, slimmed down, he still has the aura of Everyschlub. So it could happen to you, as was titled the Judy Holliday comedy when there were still unbelievably appealing cinema comedians, who could actually speak dialogue that was not punctuated with genitalia and excreta, which Funny People is. I stopped marking down the number of cock and penis references when I came to the end of the paper on my pad. But it is beyond excessive, extraneous, and as far as I could see, added nothing to either the humor or the potential pathos of the piece, which it clearly had, though by the wishy-washy finish of the movie Apatow blew it, or as he might want to put it, gave it a blow job.
The story centers around a highly successful comic, played by Adam Sandler, whom I have liked sometimes and sometimes found a cipher, wondering how he ever became a star which since I have heard he is a decent sort and most comedians are riddled with self-doubt , I figure he must fall asleep some nights wondering too. His character, George, is diagnosed with an obscure, seemingly incurable illness, and takes on as assistant, the very self-effacing (especially as he has little self) Rogen, here named Ira, to supply his needs, jokes, punchlines, and sympathy, as he hasn’t any true friends—“You’re my best friend,” George says to him, in one of the better exchanges, “and I don’t even like you.”
I will not spoil the plot for you since there isn’t really one that you can believe, but suffice it to say that Apatow surrenders any real chance to examine the true nature of stardom, ego, as well as what constitutes meaningful relationships, true comedy and love. But there is enough of an attempt to look at what’s funny to warrant a fall-by(more than more than more than enough—the movie is overlong, and even those in the quite packed audience who seemed to be having a really good time, tired by the protracted end of it, left the theater voicing disappointed opinions to which the First Amendment entitles them but it’s thrilling to observe that they were not so dulled by the extended endlessness of it that they could still think.) But these are, if course, the Dog Days of Summer, so one can take refuge in the air conditioning, even if the succor is sort of a dog.
Also I must confess that it is a long time since I whole-heartedly visited a club where there’s stand-up, so perhaps the filth, organs, excreta, and spilt semen is mandatory, part of the scene for today’s young audiences. But I couldn’t help remembering, from eons ago, a stand-up comic who played an army base, perspiration pouring off him as joke after joke met with bored silence; as he staggered from the stage, his manager collared him and taking both shoulders dripping with flop sweat, pulled him to his own chest and cried into his ear, “But Baby! You ARE funny!”