Defending Apatow's Flawed, Underrated 'Funny People'


Universal Pictures

I'm coming a bit late to Christian Lorentzen's diatribe against Judd Apatow in n+1, which surveys the writer-director's oeuvre and finds fault with—well, pretty much everything, from easy morality to lazy writing, directorial vanity to inescapable obscenity.

Now, I carry no special brief for Mr. Apatow, and for the most part Lorentzen's complaints are familiar ones. Yes, the reliance on male-anatomy jokes in Apatow's pictures is frequently tiresome, as Lorentzen catalogues at tiresome length. (The piece is titled "Dicking Around.") And Lorentzen's formulation of the generic Apatow storyline offers a reasonably accurate, if decidedly unforgiving, description of the first two installments of Apatow's unofficial trilogy, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up:

America is a country of overgrown boys, stunted and warped, who, left to their own devices, are fit to do little more than play video games, stare at pornography, and crack jokes about genitals, flatulence, and defecation. The country's womenfolk match men's obnoxious behavior with a reflexive shrewishness. They are ever vexed by anxiety about their diminishing horizons and fading looks. The men need to be tamed, and the women gain purpose from the taming, marching the men through a program of self-improvement consisting of grooming, gainful employment, relinquishing their toys, and disavowing their fraternal bonds. The women laugh and coo as the men emerge, docile clowns consoled by a friendly gaggle of children to whom they can pass on their dick jokes.

This is not, however, an accurate description of Apatow's third movie, Funny People, which makes it all the more peculiar that Lorentzen singles that film out for particular abuse. In Funny People (spoiler alert, for those who may be concerned), the catalyst that prods the main character toward maturity is not a woman but a brush with mortality. Now it's true that it seems, for a time, that the movie's ultimate destination will be much the same: Having learned that he is no longer dying, the protagonist (an Adam Sandleresque comedian played by Adam Sandler) will give up his dissolute lifestyle and settle down to raise a family with the love of his life. But he doesn't.

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Lorentzen grudgingly acknowledges as much, but suggests it really makes no difference: "The redemption [Sandler] seeks is reunion with a now married ex-girlfriend on whom he cheated. That doesn't work out, but he is redeemed through friendship with his assistant/protégé [Seth] Rogen." To recap: Apatow aggressively subverts his traditional storyline—no romantic culmination, no impending family life, no "disavowal of fraternal bonds," a redemption that is provisional at best—and Lorentzen barely notices, waving away the crucial final act as "a repertoire of plot-forwarding antics."

Talk about being unable to win! A common critique of Knocked Up, which Lorentzen echoes elsewhere, is that its storyline—an aimless schlub gets a successful hottie pregnant during a one-night stand, but they fall in love and live happily ever after—is too facile, that difficult situations are not so easily resolved. But when, one film later, Apatow makes the opposite case—that things don't always work out, that love does not conquer all, that some mistakes cannot be undone—Lorentzen derides him for "solemnity," "pseudosolemnity," and (no fewer than three times) "self-consciousness."

The irony is that Lorentzen's dour assessment of Funny People was shared by many of the same critics whom he pillories elsewhere for their Apatow "adulation." The movie received relatively poor reviews: 49 percent positive among Rotten Tomatoes' "Top Critics," compared to 86 percent for Virgin and 93 percent for Knocked Up. Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal, who described the two earlier films as "endearingly hilarious" and "improbably affecting," respectively, found Funny People "painfully unfunny"; Time's Richard Corliss pleaded, "please go back and make Judd Apatow movies." Audiences weren't much kinder, with Funny People clearing less than half as much at the box office as Virgin, and barely a third as much as Knocked Up. And as Ross Douthat argued, this relative lack of popularity was assuredly due to the film being one "in which doing the right thing comes harder, and bad choices aren't easily unwound."

The defining flaw of Lorentzen's critique is its global hostility to everything Apatow, its failure to distinguish variations and note exceptions to the case it constructs. This is comically apparent in his effort show that "all of [Apatow's] characters labor in the entertainment industry"—an exaggerated conceit that requires not only shoehorning in Catherine Keener's eBay retail business in Virgin, but also asserting that Seth Rogen's web-design job in Knocked Up should count as an entertainment gig because he will "presumably [have] Hollywood clients." (Presumably!) Still, nowhere is Lorentzen's insistence on painting with the broadest of brushes more evident than in his haphazard treatment of Funny People.

The movie is far from flawless: overlong, overstuffed with dick jokes, and often uneasily balanced between comedy and drama. (My review is here.) But Funny People remains Apatow's most mature, ambitious work to date, a film that steers expectations toward the kind of easy, Hollywood-bromide conclusion that characterized his previous work, before diverging into richer, more complicated moral terrain. A critic such as Lorentzen need not applaud such a departure, of course. But it'd be nice if he recognized it.