WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
George Simmons is a comedian-turned-Hollywood superstar whose comfortable Malibu existence is threatened when he is diagnosed with a rare blood disorder. Placed on a regimen of experimental meds that offer a mere 8% chance of success he’s forced to confront the very real prospect of his own mortality which not surprisingly triggers a drastic realignment of his priorities. Looking for a companion to assist him in his final days he hires Ira Wright an earnest young comedian in desperate need of a break to work as his assistant. Ira naturally jumps at the chance to be mentored by one of his idols but quickly finds himself in over his head as he accompanies George on his perilous chaotic journey of self-discovery and redemption.
WHO’S IN IT?
A newly trim Seth Rogen (Pineapple Express Observe & Report) injects an endearing blend of sensitivity and self-doubt into his normal “lovable schlub” routine as Ira the struggling performer tasked with such a strange assignment. In the role of George Adam Sandler deserves kudos for taking on a character clearly based on himself. It’s not hard to see the similarities between Sandler’s resume of high-concept critically-maligned blockbusters and George’s fictional portfolio of hits like Merman a male-centric version of Splash Re-Do the story of a grown man turned into a baby by a wizard and My Best Friend is a Robot a buddy comedy co-starring Owen Wilson. (For a more complete list check out george-simmons.com.) But in contrast to Sandler’s genial everyman persona George is an acerbic self-absorbed privileged vision of the Hollywood success run amok.
Supporting players include Leslie Mann (Drillbit Taylor Knocked Up) who plays George’s ex-girlfriend and soulmate Laura a one-time actress now married with two children in Marin County. Eric Bana (Munich The Time Traveler’s Wife) makes an inspired turn as Laura’s husband Clarke a boisterous Aussie businessman whose temperament amusingly alternates between violent aggression and teary-eyed affection. Relative newcomer Aubrey Plaza (TV’s Parks and Recreation) is a delight as Ira’s shy witty love interest Daisy while veteran Apatow players Jonah Hill (Superbad Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited Walk Hard) provide much of the film’s laughs as his oddball roommates. Rounding out the supporting cast are RZA Aziz Ansari and Apatow and Mann’s real-life daughters Maude and Iris Apatow.
Cameos abound with appearances by such varied names as musician Jon Brion comedians Ray Romano and Andy Dick and rapper Eminem.
After tugging the heartstrings and tickling the funnybone with equal skill in his previous directorial efforts The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up Judd Apatow heads into darker more ambitious territory with Funny People while still trying to deliver the same raucous comedy that we’ve come to expect from him. The result is a movie that is at times heartbreakingly poignant and laugh-out-loud funny.
At almost two and a half hours in length Funny People is neither poignant nor funny enough to justify such a bloated running time. Apatow let his ambition get the best of him this time attempting to deliver — to paraphrase his own words — his funniest and most serious film to date. Methinks a shorter cut of the film might have yielded either a great comedy or a great drama depending on which path its director chose. Instead we wind up with a merely good dramedy that meanders for a while before falling off a cliff in the third act.
While offering some sobering advice to Sandler’s character at a high-class restaurant rapper Eminem catches Ray Romano staring at him and unleashes a barrage of expletives at the mortified former sitcom star much to the shock of the surrounding customers. It’s ironic that one of the film’s funniest scenes comes courtesy of one of the few non-comedians in the cast.
The film features solid performances all around but I was most impressed by Bana who displays some terrific range and comedic timing as Laura’s charismatic unstable Aussie husband. Perhaps the man who scowled and brooded his way through Munich and The Hulk might want to consider sprinkling more comedy into the mix.
Knocked Up barely meets the “romance” quota that qualifies it as a romantic comedy but fear not fellas—it’s mostly comedy and of the highest grade. The movie centers around two twentysomethings who couldn’t be more different: gorgeous careful career-minded Alison (Katherine Heigl) and beastly reckless foggy-minded Ben (Seth Rogen). After a promotion at her job working for the E! network Alison decides to cut loose for one night and celebrate. She and her sister (Leslie Mann) go out to a local club where they meet Ben and his stoner friends (Jason Segel Jay Baruchel Jonah Hill and Martin Starr). One drink leads to another and before long Alison is drunk enough to take Ben home and into bed. Eight weeks later Alison is singing the morning-sickness blues and sure enough pregnancy test after pregnancy test confirms her worst fear: bun in the oven...from a one-night stand...with a guy who repulsed her when she saw him through sober eyes. So she decides to tell manchild Ben that he knocked her up and it changes everything—well sorta. Meet Seth Rogen this year’s Steve Carell Award winner for Breakout Star and Best Unknown Lead. Of course neither Carell nor Rogen was truly unknown before his respective breakout—Rogen it could be argued really broke out in last year’s 40-Year-Old Virgin alongside Carell—but the Everyman appeal and unlikely ascension to stardom between the two are similar. As with Virgin Rogen is hilarious primarily with the delivery of the absurdity he spews. And not only does Rogen display a surprising soft-ish side when necessary he projects something so relatable that you’ll swear you’ve had a Ben in your circle of friends at one point. The glue of the onscreen relationship and chemistry is Heigl. The Grey’s Anatomy star shows that she’s much more than a pretty face convincingly going hormonal as hell while improving upon the comedic chops she hinted at in the god-awful The Ringer. Mann writer/director Judd Apatow’s real-life wife and the only other source of estrogen in the movie is very much game for the pot(ty mouth) humor but it’s Paul Rudd as Mann’s cynical husband who seems to be Apatow’s comedic muse. Already a member of the Frat Pack it’s only a matter of time before Judd makes Rudd his lead. Judd Apatow has been working for much longer than most people care to realize but he finally made a splash (read: box office hit) with last year’s Virgin and Knocked Up solidifies him as the one to beat when it comes to comedy. Apatow combines certain elements that make his style reign supreme. First and foremost is a distinct note of improvisation that makes his actors—many of whom he repeatedly employs—feel at home and thus his audiences do as well. Then there’s his affection for the underdog which is no doubt how he sees or once saw himself. It not only endears him to his ever-growing fan base it’s a theme that grows on you throughout the course of his movies (namely his last two) convincing you that sometimes the good guy CAN get the girl. Knocked Up builds on both themes: The actors seem like they sat around with Apatow took one toke too many and started riffing on each other and pop culture; and Rogen is certainly Apatow’s underdog a nod to underdog dreamers everywhere and to comedy by implying “Would it be funny if the movie was George Clooney trying to woo Katherine Heigl?” He caps it off in mature real-world fashion to mimic his protagonist’s arc by throwing in some sentimentality. It's effective and seems credible which sums up all of Apatow's work.
Told from the perspective of one innocent maid Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald) the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville Natasha Wightman) their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance Tom Hollander) her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) for whom Mary works British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban) a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power the ranks of house servants personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide and when they do it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment however and in Gosford Park the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often you can't even tell who's who. Still with all the talent involved there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam too shows off his musical abilities as the suave piano-playing singing Novello. The rest all blend together except unfortunately the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet is in way over his head.
Interestingly the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs Downstairs which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm sounds familiar). Sure it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece to boot) could pull it off and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe just maybe Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.