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.
With four days left before his execution notoriously reticent death row inmate David Gale (Kevin Spacey) decides at last to share his story with the press. He chooses as his vessel reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) who's just spent a week in the slammer for refusing to reveal her sources on a kiddie porn cover story. As Gale's story unfolds (and we see it in flashback) Bitsey becomes convinced he's innocent and she and her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann) begin a race against the clock to discover the truth that will save him. Sound like an overblown blurb from a movie studio's press files? Apologies for that but the best way to talk about this story's climactic points is to resort to hyperbolic clichés of this ilk--the movie's key moments are without exception melodramatic and overblown. Nonetheless most of the movie is suspenseful the story has several interesting (I wouldn't go so far as compelling) twists and there are plenty of reasons to root for Gale's cause especially if like him and admittedly like me you're a political liberal who fancies yourself at least somewhat intellectual.
If there's one thing that defines Kevin Spacey's acting style it's his unparalleled ability to discourse at length on philosophical minutiae a gift that undoubtedly contributed to his getting this role in the first place. But Spacey gets to stretch a bit more playing Gale--the professorial character in his pre-death row life was a loose cannon even by academia's standards: he partied with his students talked about fantasy and desire in class and belonged to Death Watch a liberal advocacy group opposed to the death penalty. Beyond that his personal life was a disaster. His wife was having an affair with a Spaniard Gale was a borderline alcoholic and his ego was the size of a generously proportioned watermelon. So there are plenty of challenges for Spacey in the part--both in the flashbacks and the death row sequences--and he obviously embraces them all; unfortunately sometimes he squeezes the life out of them in the process foregoing for example the tragic nuances of real alcoholism for the stumbling sobriquets of an overblown town-drunk philosopher. The equally gifted Laura Linney as Constance--Gale's stalwart friend fellow professor co-director of Death Watch and alleged murder victim--finds herself in less familiar territory. Her character is complex yet remarkably one-dimensional for most of the movie which leaves the talented actress turning--albeit reluctantly--to melodrama for support. Winslet too is on unfamiliar ground with an American accent (quite well done old chap-ette) a mission and a bitchiness that's too little seen from this pristine young girl.
It's truly unfortunate that director Alan Parker didn't keep a tighter handle on The Life of David Gale's more dramatic moments since had they come off better this would have been a more even and generally more watchable film. As it is each of the talented lead actors has a scene in which they really let loose on the hysterical wailing waterworks--Winslet lucky gal has two. They may not be bad enough to make you cringe necessarily but they're obviously overplayed. The film would have benefited from a wail-o-meter that would have allowed the bawling to go so far and only so far. All that aside though this film is ultimately less melodramatic than its equivalent TV movie version would have (and probably has) been--and that leads me to my final point. The Life of David Gale is about what TV pundits would call a hot-button issue and while the public is intelligent enough not to be emotionally swayed by the hue and cry of activists on either side of the argument we can--and by God we will--be entertained by it. So I just want to say thank you Hollywood for once again one-upping the 6 o'clock news and for showing that even discussions of the most important issues of our time can be squeezed into a two-hour movie and manipulated in the interests of suspense and drama.