Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Final Destination

This has got to be the oddest named sequel in film history. The first one was called Final Destination. The next two were called, fittingly, Final Destination 2 and Final Destination 3. Now, instead of Final Destination 4, we've got THE Final Destination. Who the hell told these jokers that the could just ignore the entire tradition of sequel naming? It would be one thing if they went with something idiotic like FD4, or FD3D (cuz it's in 3-D, get it?). At least there's a precedent for that.

The makers of The Final Destination must've used up all their creativity with the title, because the rest of the movie is as by-the-numbers as possible. Just so ya'll know, I don't have a problem with this. The Final Destination movies are not horror films, no matter how they're categorized on Netflix. They're comedies, and comedies that never fail to deliver. No, the characters aren't funny; they're barely even humans. They don't have jobs or relationships or even names as far as I remember. It's all about the death scenes. The ridiculously complicated Rube Goldberg death contraptions that power these films are essentially blood-soaked slapstick routines; Three Stooges shorts where Moe actually gouges Curley's eyes out. Or, rather, where Moe spills a viscous fluid on the floor, Curly slips on it, and the impact of his heft on the floor makes a gardening shear fall off of a nearby table and into Curley's eye socket. It's sort of a deadpan version of Sam Raimi's splatstick, but this time, it's in 3-D, so the severed heads and billowing plumes of organ meat shoot right out at you. If you're the kind of person who finds decapitations inherently funny, this is your movie. For the record, I am one of those kind of persons. Although I'm also the kind of person who gets pissed off with basic historical illiteracy. At one point, an irascible old dude in a hospital tells his Asian physical therapist: "you know how many of your people I killed in the Korean war?" The Asian responds "I'm Chinese." As though that invalidated the old dude's comment. MOTHERFUCKER, WHO DO YOU THINK KNOCKED MACARTHUR BACK ACROSS THE 38TH PARALLEL?! EVER HEARD OF THE CHOSIN RESERVOIR, FUCKHEAD?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Quentin Tarantino's Invisible Bomb

Hitchcock defined film suspense as a ticking time bomb. Think of Mrs. Bates’s shadow creeping closer and closer to Janet Leigh as she unsuspectingly showers, Bernard Hermann’s frantic score in the background in Psycho. Think of the zombie hands pulling the woman‘s face ever closer to the jagged piece of wood in Fulci‘s Zombi 2. Think of Jack Torrance walking into Room 237 of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. It’s the terrible anticipation of a disastrous event. The disastrous event can come as a surprise to the audience and the protagonist, like the naked woman in Room 237’s bathtub turning into a rotting corpse. The audience can become aware of the horror before the victim does thanks to the omniscient camera, as in the shadow of the knife rising behind Janet Leigh’s oblivious shoulder. Or, as with the eyeball slowly approaching the sharpened splinter, the audience and the unfortunate victim can both know exactly what’s going to happen, with the suspense coming from the agonizingly prolonged anticipation of it all. In every case, the audience is gripped by the terrible curiosity of watching someone move towards calamity. And the operative word is move. Suspense scenes tend to be highly kinetic, powered by physical momentum and usually some kind of tension-producing musical sting.
What you don’t generally find in most suspense films is dialogue. People talking to each other is about the least suspenseful thing you can point a camera at. Conversations usually involve people standing or sitting in one place (unless the conversations were written by Aaron Sorkin), and if people are having a conversation, it also usually means that they’re not in imminent danger of catastrophic death and/or maiming. Now, two people could be having a regular conversation, and in the middle of it, they could be decapitated or set on fire or something, but that’s not suspense, that’s shock. One of many ingenious things about Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is the bold decision to include several extended suspense sequences that include nothing but dialogue, with little in the way of camera trickery or unsettling music to torque the tension-meter.
Take the epic, near-half-hour-long opening sequence in which SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Walz) searches for hidden Jews on the property of a French peasant. It’s a masterpiece of suspense, and it involves almost no actual movement; Landa and the farmer sit at a table, Landa talks to the farmer, and that’s pretty much it. At one point, the camera pans down to reveal to the audience that there are, in fact, a family of Jews hiding under the floorboards, but that’s all there is as far as motion of the frame or within the frame. Instead, Tarantino cuts between two-shots of the pair sitting together, close-ups of Landa, close-ups of the farmer, and close-ups of the various props that Landa fiddles with during the interrogation.
The tension is driven at the onset by the iconic nature of the setup. “Jews hiding from Nazis” is a good shorthand definition of “dangerous situation.” The question: will the Jews be caught, hangs over the scene like a cocked Luger, freighting every gesture and statement from Landa with menace. Tarantino sustains the tension by keeping Landa’s dialogue, and his gestures, consistently genial. The audience doesn’t know at any point if Landa truly suspects that the farmer is hiding Jews, and that uncertainty becomes more and more unbearable as Landa draws out the interview with trivia and bureaucratic formalities. He praises the beauty of the farmer’s daughters, he lauds the deliciousness of the farm’s milk, he goes through a meticulous rundown of the names and ages of the one unaccounted for Jewish family in the area, the Dreyfuses. The audience knows that the Dreyfuses are hiding under the floor, and with that knowledge thick in the air, Tarantino pushes against the grain by making the scene look as mundane as possible. Landa doesn’t just ask the farmer what he knows about the Dreyfuses. He takes out a huge ledger, puts together a comically complicated fountain pen, and writes the information down, with Tarantino cutting to close-ups of Landa’s pen gliding across the page. Visually, these shots are prosaic to the point of humdrum, but nevertheless, every pen stroke is charged with tension because of the danger that the Dreyfuses are in, the uncertainty as to their fate, and the fact that Tarantino goes out of his way to prolong the danger and uncertainty. Landa’s dialogue becomes riveting as the viewer tries to figure out just how much he knows from the words he chooses. Is Landa really at the farm house for a perfunctory visit, or is he toying with the farmer for his own amusement? Landa beings to drop clues as to his real knowledge during a soliloquy about what makes him such an effective hunter of Jews, but once again, Tarantino denies the audience confirmation, allowing the conversation to lead off into tangents that sharpen the tension by prolonging it.

Traditional cinematic suspense is a shot of the timer on a bomb tick down to zero Inglourious Basterds is a series of suspense scenes where the bomb is never shown on screen. The bomb is in the viewer’s head, but there’s no timer indicating how much longer the tension will last. What makes Inglourious Basterds work as a suspense film is that the lack of visual cues that normally let an audience know just how much suspense they’re going to have to endure. Be it the timer on a bomb moving towards zero, or a killer getting closer and closer to an unsuspecting victim, visually oriented suspense scenes have a reasonably predictable termination point. The bomb timer will either hit zero or be defused with a second to spare, the killer will cross that last few feet between him and his victim. Including the farm house scene, Inglourious Basterds features two hugely long, dialogue heavy scenes that are suspenseful because they’re comprised largely of dialogue and because they go on for a long time. The longer the characters talk, the less sure the viewer is of just what’s going to happen and, more importantly, when it’s going to happen. All they have to hold on to are the meandering dialogues of Tarantino’s endlessly coy characters, and a camera that seems determined to focus on only the most inconsequential objects in the room. Critics often dismiss Quentin Tarantino as a serious filmmaker due to his hopelessly juvenile mindset and preoccupation with shallow popular culture. But in Inglourious Basterds Tarantino shows a singular ability to delay his audience easy gratification and to show immense attention to every detail in every scene, from the intricate web of film references woven throughout the dialogue to props like Hans Landa’s ridiculous and disarming calabash pipe. Whether you find these scenes gripping or tedious, one word that would never come to mind is ‘juvenile.’

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

The most important thing to remember about Ingloruious Basterds is that it isn't really about the 'inglourious basterds' at all. The exploits of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his band of Jewish-American nazi-hunters take up about one third of the film's screentime, with none of that time devoted to classic 'guys on a mission' camaraderie. Quentin Tarantino has often called Inglourious Basterds his take on the 'guys on a mission' World War Two film, but it's not representative of the genre. In Tarantino's typically episodic fashion, Inglourious Basterds alternates between the story of Pitt's bloody-thirsty commandos and a young Jewish woman hiding out in occupied Paris and plotting revenge against the Nazis who killed her family. The two narrative strands dovetail at the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film attended by all top echelon of the Nazi party. Along the way, Tarantino skimps on most of the elements that define the 'guys on a mission' genre. He ignores, for the most part, the ambushes and shoot-outs in favor of one 'guys on a mission' trope in particular: the classic "fool or hide from the Gestapo" scene. Inglourious Basterds is basically the scene on the train in The Great Escape when Gordon Jackson and Richard Attenborrough try to get past the Nazi officer with their forged papers, over and over.

Quentin Tarantino is the undisputed master of the cinematic bait and switch. His last three films have been presented as pulpy, kinetic genre riffs, but Kill Bill Vol. 2, Death Proof, and now Inglourious Basterds all proved on inspection to be heavy on dialogue, light on conventionally satisfying action, and fully intent on subverting audience expectations. Death Proof and Basterds in particular are, in many ways, the same movie. Both appear at first glance to pay explicit homage to an exploitation genre, slasher horror and WWII "men on a mission" films respectively. And both torment the audience in exactly the same way, by steadily building tension through long conversational scenarios that test the viewer's patience and capacity to withstand suspense, and then releasing the tension with an act of spectacular violence. The main difference is that Death Proof only uses the shtick twice, while Inglourious Basterds pulls the rubber band back and lets it go repeatedly. That, and the whole "using World War Two and the Holocaust as a sandbox for Tarantino's vulgar shenanigans" thing.

Some people will no doubt be offended by Tarantino's gleeful defiling of history, but they shouldn't b. Ingloruious Basterds isn't about the Second World War or the Holocaust. Even more than the rest of the Tarantino oeuvre, Basterds is a movie about other movies. It's WWII as filtered through the lens of fifty years of film history, with references as diverse as the prototype "men on a mission" film The Dirty Dozen to Jean-Pierre Mellville's examination of the French Resistance Army of Shadows. Hell, the British SAS officer who meets up with the Basterds halfway through the is a professional film critic! But whereas most Tarantino movies are content to exist inside a hermetic world of film reference, Inglorious Basterds actually offers smart observations on the unique cultural power of film as an art form. The fate of the world hangs on a movie premiere, after all, a propaganda film called "Nation's Pride" that Josef Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) sees as the key bolstering the will of the German people in the wake of the D-Day invasion. Meanwhile, the Basterds are content to create their own propaganda of the deed, terrorizing the whole Wehrmacht through their mythic brutality. One of the reasons that there is so little running time devoted to recording the Basterd's exploits is because Tarantino is more interested in showing the fear their exploits kindle among the Germans. Like the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, the Basterd's Nazi killing is left for the audience to imagine, and in imagining, make all the more gruesome.

Since Tarantino doesn't spend much time among the Basterds, there's plenty of time to devote to self-contained episodes of sustained suspense. These individual scenes are expertly crafted, walking the fine line between agonizing tension and agonizing tedium, but because these sequences don't build on one another, they fail to build sufficient momentum to avoid diminishing returns. Eventually, some time in the middle of the second hour or so, the conceit begins to run out of steam, but even at its most exasperating, there's always something on the screen worth looking at. You've got the usual labyrinthine Tarantino dialogue, filled as it is with tossed off asides that take the viewer by surprise with their off-hand depth. There's Tarantino's delightfully restless camera, enlivening even the most interminable exchange. And, of course, there's the ensemble of game performers, with Christoph Walz standing out as a playful, charming sadist in an SS uniform. Walz is getting a great deal of deserved attention for his work here, but that shouldn't overshadow a rollicking piece of character acting by Brad Pitt. Anyone who doesn't enjoy Pitt's rootin,' tootin,' Nazi-scalpin' cracker must be allergic to fun. Pitt is the source of much of the film's humor, which is surprisingly prevalent for a movie featuring a character nicknamed "the Jew Hunter." In the end, any sense of dissatisfaction with Inglorious Basterds is spawned by the repetitive structure, and the wistful sense that nothing Tarantino could put on screen would match the imaginary movie that the premise: "Quentin Tarantino movie about Jewish soldiers scalping Nazis in occupied France" conjures in the imagination.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

District 9

A disabled space ship breaks down over Johannesburg, South Africa, filled with malnourished insectoid aliens. With no way of leaving the planet, the authorities set up refugee camps in the shantytown section of Joburg, where alien-human conflicts emerge almost instantly. The set up seems like a feature-length Twilight Zone episode; sci fi allegory ripe for the transmission of liberal pieties about the evil of apartheid and xenophobia. The pleasant surprise of District 9 is that the social critique is much more cutting and relevant than self-evident pap about how "aliens are people too!" Instead, District 9 writer-director Neil Blomkamp offers a harrowing examination of the fate of surplus populations in an era of post-industrial capitalism.

As District 9 opens, the alien refugees have been living in confined squalor for twenty years, in the shadow of their hovering, immobile spaceship, and conflict with the humans of the city has reached a fever pitch. A corporation has been contracted by the government to evict the aliens from their camp to be relocated to a new facility hundreds of miles from human populations. The human protagonist is a schmucky middle manager charged with overseeing the evictions played by Sharlto Copley. His character, Wikus Van Der Merwe, is an affable dope, happy to carry out management's directives in order to advance his career. That directive: corral the aliens into a desolate wasteland, while at the same time scouring District 9 for alien weapons technology that could be reverse engineered for human use. The scenes of Copley and his machine-gun-toting mercenary comrades conning aliens into signing off on their eviction aren't there to remind the viewer of the horrors of apartheid or anti-immigrant sentiment. They remind the viewer of similar scenes from slum-areas the world over. The aliens, derisively nicknamed "prawns," could be the slumdwellers of Rio or Manila or Mumbai or the real Johannesburg. They're exploited and herded not on the basis of their alien-ness, but due to their utter uselessness to the economic order. The modern world economy is good at creating two things: powerful corporations with transnational power, like the film's fictional Multi-National United, and surplus population. Cities the world over are surrounded by ad hoc communities of people without employment or even the possibility of future employment. The post-industrial order simply has no use for them, except perhaps as organ donors for sickly members of the 'productive' class. One of the preeminent functions of the modern state (and, to an increasing degree, private enterprises like Halliburton and Blackwater) is the management of these populations; keeping them and their squalor and their potential criminality as far away from the centers of commerce and residence and tourism of the world's cities as possible. District 9 puts this phenomenon, and its implications for the future of human rights in an increasingly privatized, profit-driven world, into a startlingly relief, with insights made palatable to a mass audience by the sensational vision of refugee aliens and a light touch with the message-stick.

The first third or so of District 9 is presented as a straight-up documentary, with footage of Copley evicting the prawns from the district interspersed with talking head testimonials from scholars and government officials. The device works like gangbusters, injecting some nice foreshadowing as well as offering straight-up expository dialogue with considerably less awkwardness than is usually found in science fiction films. The hand-held camerawork inside District 9 will probably nauseate the people who tend to complain about the Bourne movies, but it grounds the action in reality, making it instantly easy to suspend disbelief as you watch giant bug-looking aliens get hassled by bureaucrats. During the first act, Blomkamp and company are content to soak up the atmosphere created by the top-notch special effects, letting the parallel with the heavily-policed, frequently bulldozed ghettos of the world speak for itself. The film takes a turn when Copley is exposed to a mysterious alien fluid in one of the shanties which begins warping his DNA and transforming him into one of a prawn. Not only does the political allegory take a back seat to hitting a series of familiar action film plot points, but the documentary conceit is rejected in favor of traditional third-person camera setups. At this point, District 9 morphs along with Copley, from a Star Trek-like ethical rumination to a Star Wars-esque slam-bang action flick. But even as the shootouts and chase scenes rev up, there is still the striking imagery of the human Copley, initially cool but clearly somewhat disgusted by the poverty and filth of the aliens' lives, is slowly immersed into the District, with the audience sharing Copley's journey to identification with the prawns' plight. Not to mention the fact that the second-half descent into action film cliche also features genuinely entertaining, well-staged action scenes that are boosted immeasurably by the liberal use of the alien's weaponry. A shootout is one thing, a shootout with laser rifles that blow people up like hot dogs in a microwave is another, infinitely more awesome, thing altogether. The last third of the film has its faults, from the familiar action elements to some interaction between the main character and one of the aliens that feel inauthentic and forced, as if in an attempt to shoehorn an emotional climax. But none of these issues detract from the ingenuity of the premise, the vitality of the social insight, the thrifty-but-impressive special effects, or the whiz-bang coolness of the action scenes. All of these elements combine to make District 9 the best action movie of the summer. With a 30 million dollar budget, District 9 shows why the long-promised "death of the blockbuster," if it ever actually happens, will be nothing worth mourning.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Superheroism is no laughing matter.

It's a fact that's easy to forget after dull-as-dishwater turns in the likes of Troy, The Other Boleyn Girl, and the new Time Traveller's Wife, but it's a fact nonetheless: Eric Bana used to be funny. He was a stand-up comedian and TV sketch trouper before his breakout role as notorious Australian criminal Mark "Chopper" Read in Chopper. Bana is an absolute riot in Chopper, playing the part of a violence addict with fearsome charisma and hilarious obliviousness to the costs of his horrible actions. When Bana headbutts his girlfriend and her mother into unconsciousness and says to the knocked-out girlfriend, "look what you did, you upset your mum!" his voice has a childlike earnestness that makes it impossible not to laugh. Film fans had every reason to expect a lot more vibrant, funny performances from Eric Bana after that.

Then he came to Hollywood and became the biggest stiff this side of Christian Bale. Nowadays, a Bana performance involves a shit-ton of glowering, looking anguished and grimacing when he's not glowering. At any given moment on screen, he looks as likely to crack a smile as he is to take a shit on the camera lens.

What the hell happened?

The answer can be found by examining the parallels between Bana and other gifted comic actor who lost his light touch, Michael Keaton. Like Bana, Keaton got his start in show business as a stand-up comedian. After his big break playing the sleazy pimp/undertaker in Night Shift, Keaton built a career as the best comedic actor of the 1980s. We're talking Night Shift, Johnny Dangerously, Mr. Mom, Gung Ho and, to top it all off, Beetlejuice. He made a couple of less-than-stellar comedies in the '90s, but the end of the Reagen-era pretty much meant the end of Michael Keaton as a go-to guy for comedic roles.

What the hell happened? The same thing that turned Eric Bana from a live-wire funny man to an epic stick-in-the-mud: he got turned into a superhero.

You just can't argue with the chronology. Keaton: Gung Ho, Beetlejuice, BATMAN, My Life, Desperate Measures. Bana: Australian sketch comedy shows, Chopper, THE HULK, Troy, Munich. There's something about accepting the burden of iconic superherodom that sucks the joy out of actors. The effect isn't universal. It seems to be more noticeable on actors who had reputations for light entertainment before they donned the colored tights. Val Kilmer has always oscillated between being a stiff and being the loopiest motherfucker on earth, and Batman Forever didn't do a thing to change that. It's just too bad that stiff-ass Val had to show up for that one. George Clooney was still trying to figure out how to act without tipping his head forward in every take when he made Batman and Robin. And Tobey Maguire has always, and will always, be a mopey dink, costume or no. Whatever the mechanism, the responsibility of carrying a multi-million dollar film franchise and embodying a character with deep roots in popular culture just sucks the fun out of actors more used to the lower stakes of comedy. Then, even when they move on to less mythic characters, that ponderous sense of gravity and humorlessness lingers in their work. Playing a superhero, it's the STD of film acting.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra

In the annals of cinema, 2009 will go down as the Summer of Hasbro. Two of the biggest action tentpole features of the season have been brought to you by a toy company looking the squeeze a few more ducats out of a couple of moribund cartoon/action figure franchises. Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen and GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra are sort of the Goofus and Gallant of toy-based summer movies. Where Transformers is incoherent, defiantly stupid and inexplicably epic in length, GI Joe features a lean, propulsive narrative and well-crafted, cleanly-shot action sequences. And yet, Transformers 2 stands out as a sort of anti-auteurist work: that specific combination of desperate pandering, sweaty, sweaty close-ups and abstract expressionist editing could only come from the fevered crypto-fascist ganglia of Michael Bay. For all of GI Joe's director Stephen Sommers' laudable talent for staging action sequences, he can't hold a candle to Bay at putting his mark on his films.

Still, one shouldn't underestimate the value of generic competence in moviemaking, especially moviemaking involving futuristic supersoldiers fighting ninjas. The whole point of a movie like this is to provide maximum butt-kicking, and Sommers delivers on that count. GI Joe is a string of sleek, kinetic action sequences connected by goofy bits of character development that never go on long enough to become seriously irritating. The performances are generally inoffensive, with even Marlon Waynes failing to nauseate and Channing Tatum managing a sort of lower-wattage Mark Wahlberg casual-badass vibe as "Duke." Duke and his bro Ripcord (Waynes) get waylaid by terrorists while transporting experimental warheads and end up signing on with super-secret world police organization "GI Joe," lead by General Dennis Quaid. Duke, Ripcord, and his new Joe-bros, like Snakes, Breaker, Heavy Duty and sexy genius Scarlett O'hara face off with a bunch of supersoldiers bent on world domination, and Sienna Miller, who you know is evil because she dyed her hair black. The movie culminates in a massive showdown in an underwater bunker that calls to mind a more exciting version of the three-scenes-in-one finale of Phantom Menace.

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is probably the most well-realized summer action film of the year, and given the fact that summer action films are supposed to be the thing that Hollywood does best, that's an impressive accomplishment. Yet, I weirdly found myself wishing for some of that patented Michael Bay idiocy, because watching a Michael Bay film puts a viewer on the edge of their seat, waiting for the next stunning insult to their intelligence. And for some inexplicable reason, that can be more entertaining that actual entertainment.

Friday, August 07, 2009

In The Loop

Edmund Burke never really wrote "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing," but it's a good line nonetheless. It's also not accurate. Good men doing nothing is integral to the triumph of evil, but it's certainly not all that's necessary. After all, how many "good men," or good women for that matter, are there, really? Not enough to tip the evil/good balance. No, the real key to evil winning the day is the active collaboration of mediocre people. The genuinely malevolent are as rare as the unfailingly virtuous. Most folks are weak-willed and capable of superhuman rationalization in justifying selfish behavior. The run-up to the Iraq war is an instructive example of the phenomenon. There were probably only a handful of truly evil warmongers in the U.S. government. Their efforts were made effective by the busy-bee complicity of legions of government and media folks, none of whom probably had a hard-on for war, but all of whom knew that the success of their careers depended on the success of the war.

British comedian/filmmaker Armando Iannucci dissects this dynamic brilliantly with In The Loop. Tom Hollander stars as an obscure British cabinet minister who, after making a gaffe during a radio interview, becomes a pawn in the battle between bureaucrats seeking to expedite an Anglo-American invasion in the Middle East and bureaucrats trying to slow the march to war. A foul-mouthed Scottish mouthpiece played with ferocious relish by Peter Capaldi, is trying to grease the war skids on behalf of the Prime Minister. Meanwhile a State Department drone played by Mimi Kennedy and James Gandolfini's peacenik Pentagon general try to enlist Hollander in their effort to publicize the powerful case against invasion. The dialogue is a rapid-fire exchange of brilliantly profane zingers and craven self-justifications, as these government middle managers try to square their consciences with their career ambitions. The pathetically small-bore intrigue never threatens to push the film into thriller territory and there aren't enough mistaken identities or slammed doors to qualify as a farce. Instead, In the Loop's interest and humor are propelled by just how plausible the whole sad escapade feels, a sense of reality enhanced by a smartly chosen cinema verite aesthetic. Watching the film, you laugh at the scalding bits of badinage, but you're also laughing to keep from crying at the casual small-mindedness of the characters as they obfuscate their ways to higher pay grades and the deaths of thousands.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Funny People

When Judd Apatow was a precocious, nerdy teenager, he recorded interviews a number of comedy legends, including Steve Martin, in a search to discover just what it takes to be a comedian. All of that dorky effort has gone to good use, as Apatow's third directorial effort stands as the most thoroughgoing exploration of the comedy mindset put to film. Now, considering that the competition for that title are Punchline and, um, Punchline, that may seem like faint praise, but the degree to which Funny People devotes itself to a close, textured portrayal of the comedy life, from struggling stand-ups to established superstars, is singular. Also singular, Funny People's stubborn failure to adhere to any predictable genre. It's not a romantic comedy, it's not a sex comedy, in fact, it's not really a comedy at all. There are plenty of genuinely funny parts, but most of those are filmed bits of the various characters stand-up. The meat of the film is a sobering assessment of the comedic psyche, with Apatow coming to the conclusion that the bitterness and narcissism that fuel comic genius make it impossible for comedians to ever really be happy with themselves or other people.

The story concerns Adam Sandler, playing a slightly more artistically bankrupt, lonely version of himself, comedy movie star George Simmons and his fight with a life threatening illness. Faced with his own mortality, and the hollowness of his hedonistic celebrity existence, Simmons goes back to his stand-up roots and enlists struggling comedian Seth Rogen as his assistant/joke writer/best friend. Apatow definitely stuffs the film with subplots and extraneous characters and keeps a razor-sharp focus on well-observed details that reveal the crushing depth of Simmons' isolation, as well as the double-edged nature of his comic gift. For guys like Simmons, comedy serves as the ultimate coping mechanism, but the hostility that underlies his humor keeps other people at an agonizing remove. The mood of angst and loss is sustained by a surprisingly expressive soundtrack that eschews cliche and a uniquely effective use of the hoary old character-revealing montage.

In a plot development telegraphed in the trailers, Simmons discovers that his disease is in remission, and decided that the only way to fill the hole at the center of his life is to reunite with his first, lost love, Leslie Mann, even if it means prying her and her two kids away from husband Eric Bana. The last act of the movie is a foray to Mann's Marin County home, and while it's a hit-and-miss segment that blunts some of the film's momentum, it earns points for defying audience expectations.

While all of this is well-shot and insightful, it's not especially funny, but if a viewer goes into Funny People with an eye towards appreciating the sort of filmic traits that comedies generally ignore in a desperate struggle for laughs, there are rewards aplenty to be had. Like other Judd Apatow movies, Funny People is rambling, messy, overstuffed and paced like an Andrei Tarkovsky film, but unlike previous efforts, the stabs at meaning aren't sacrificed in the pursuit of jokery. Instead, the movie plays like a deft character study, with occasional jokes sprinkled throughout like cinematic bon bons.