Islam and the Future of Tolerance


Sam Harris is looking for peace.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Maajd Nawaz, Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Directed by Desh Amila and Jay Shapiro

 

It is a given that it is a bad idea to discuss politics and religion if you want things to be sociable. Harris, a neuroscientist, is an atheist who has become symbolic of the New Atheist movement. Nawaz is a former radical Islamist who after being rescued from an Egyptian jail by Amnesty International has become an outspoken advocate for religious reform within Islam. Initially when they met, a discussion over the possibility of reform within Islam led to a rift between the two men.

Eventually, they decided to talk things out and discovered that they were more like than unalike. While they both have fundamental differences in philosophy, both agree that Islam needs reform, and that the way to do it properly is not through violence but through conversation. The two men had just such a conversation (which fortunately was recorded with excerpts from it played here) which led to them co-authoring a book whose name this documentary has taken as a title and whose subject matter has inspired this film.

Both men are articulate and intelligent; listening to them talk is absolutely fascinating. They are also passionate believers in their ideas, with Harris in particular suggesting a willingness to have his mind changed. Watching this movie is like being privy to a conversation between two intellectual equals who not only have differing points of view, they are both willing to admit the points of view that they share as well. At times the movie gets a little bit talky which might scare some people off (if the subject matter doesn’t to begin with) but I found the movie never got dull. Your opinion may differ on that score.

While the directors use some interesting visual metaphors to what’s happening (like using tightrope walkers to illustrate the difficulty both men faced when they re-convened in 2014) they mostly stick to interview-style tactics to discuss the backgrounds of the two main subjects, particularly when it comes to Nawaz whose background in England going from a fairly happy high school student to a radical Muslim is compelling. He would join the radical Hizb Ut-Tahir group and become an important recruiter to their cause. After 9-11 (he was in Cairo recruiting at the time) he was arrested by the Egyptian police and tortured. It was only through the intervention of Amnesty International that he was released; the fact that it was Westerners who saw to his rescue led to his transformation from radical Islamist to advocate for reform.

The questions raised by the movie are worthy ones and to be honest these are questions we are all going to need to grapple with. The last third of the film both men take aim at liberals who have a tendency to overreact to criticism of Islam by immediately playing the bigotry card. The infamous Real Time With Bill Maher show on which actor Ben Affleck blew a gasket when host Maher and guest Harris referred to Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas.” He said that the sentiment was “gross and racist,” and at the time I agreed with him.

Watching this though I see what Harris and Maher were trying to get across a little bit more clearly. They are absolutely correct that liberals are becoming more and more entrenched and intolerant in their beliefs that true liberals march in lockstep when it comes to issues of cultural appropriation, sexual politics and other liberal sacred cows. Criticism of bad ideas is at the heart of liberalism and if we can’t do that without someone yelling “cultural insensitivity,” then we have failed. However, words do matter and I can understand why Affleck blew a fuse – going back and watching the clip over again (it’s on HBO Go) the language both Harris and Maher used was inflammatory. That becomes more of an issue when Nawaz argues that strict interpretation of what the Quran says may not necessarily reflect what the intent was of the writer to get across; the language has changed considerably in the interim, as well as the context.

This is fascinating stuff although some may find it dull and overly intellectual. For my part, I think that film should occasionally give our brains an opportunity to be exercised and tackling controversial but relevant questions about explosive subjects is in general a good thing. This is a dynamic if occasionally dry movie that is unafraid to tackle a subject most of us don’t care to think about – but we really should.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer is forced to reexamine their beliefs. This is more of an intellectual film than an emotional one. There are some interesting visual metaphors.
REASONS TO STAY: The film may be a bit too talky for some.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is not suitable for children. There is also some profanity including racial epithets.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Nawaz met at a dinner following a debate in which Nawaz felt he had his rear handed to him; Harris, admittedly tipsy, asked questions of the obviously hurt Nawaz that led to a non-violent standoff. Four years later, Harris reached out to Nawaz and had a lengthy phone conversation; both men found to their surprise that they had more common ground than they thought.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thinking Atheist
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Ben is Back

Advertisements

Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg


Two giants of stand-up comedy reunited.

(2016) Documentary/Comedy (Weinstein) Robert Klein, Fred Willard, Mike Binder, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, David Steinberg, Budd Friedman, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Larry Miller, Sheila Levine, Myrna Jacobson, Billy Crystal, Rick Overton, Lucie Arnaz, James Burrows, Allie Klein, Robert Mankoff, Jay Leno, Eric Bogosian, Michael Fuchs, Ray Romano, Bob Stein, Melanie Roy Friedman  Directed by Marshall Fine

 

When I was in high school (and I realize this dates me tremendously) there were three names that dominated stand-up comedy; George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Robert Klein. The first two became legends, cultural icons. The third became more of an influence on other stand-ups than he did a household name, although anyone who has seen any of his numerous HBO stand-up specials will attest to the man’s genius in the field.

Film critic and historian Marshall Fine has put together this loving tribute to Klein who quite frankly deserves to be feted. The documentary is very loosely structured with a number of chapters looking at aspects of Klein’s career and comedy. This does have the effect of leaping around chronologically which is fine but it also feels at times like there is no flow to what’s going on, which may well be an appropriate measure. He talks about his history somewhat; growing up in the Bronx (as in most retrospectives Klein visits his childhood home on Decatur Avenue), his time honing his craft in both Second City and at the Improv in Los Angeles, spending time being mentored by Rodney Dangerfield, his marriage to opera singer Belinda  Boozer and so on and so forth.

He also talks about why Jews seem to dominate the stand-up market, the use of profanity in his act and adjusting to the times. He imparts some of his experience to students at Binghamton University and endures squealing little girls who see the camera and exult in being in a movie – without having a clue of who Klein is (some of him recognize him from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days).

Fine obviously feels a great affection for his subject and we don’t get a sense that Klein is anything but a nice guy. His divorce is given little coverage and although it appears that there was some acrimony between them, the causes and effects of the split on the couple are given little play. Boozer is conspicuously not interviewed for the film.

Of course, I’m a warts and all kind of guy and I want to get to know the man behind the laughs but that isn’t what this film is after and if you’re okay with that, you’ll be okay with this. There are a lot of wonderful clips here, including some of Klein’s signature songs like “The Colonoscopy Song” and “I Can’t Stop My Leg” from which the title of the documentary is taken. This is a pleasant diversion, a career retrospective for a performer who is as sharp at 75 as he was at 25 and continues to make us laugh today. There are fewer summations of a career that could possibly be better than that.

REASONS TO GO: The film makes a good case for Klein’s place in comedy history.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a bit of a mishmash.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Klein was nominated for a Tony award for his role in the musical They’re Playing Our Song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Starz
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: From War to Wisdom

Delivery Man


Chris Pratt needs a hug.

Chris Pratt needs a hug.

(2013) Comedy (Touchstone) Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Simon Delaney, Bobby Moynihan, Dave Patten, Adam Chanler-Berat, Britt Robertson, Jack Reynor, Amos VanderPoel, Matthew Daddario, Jessica Williams, Jay Leno, Bill Maher, Leslie Ann Glossner, Derrick Arthur, Michael Olberholtzer, Kevin Hopkins, Jessica Abo, Kate Dalton. Directed by Ken Scott

There’s a difference between being a dad and being a father and sometimes the two get confused. Anybody with sperm can be a father; not everyone is cut out to be a dad.

David Wozniak (Vaughn) is a charming but incompetent slacker who delivers meat for his father’s (Blumenfeld) Brooklyn butcher shop. He often gets sidetracked, using the truck to take care of his personal business and essentially chauffeuring the meat around Brooklyn. He takes four times as long to deliver the same meat as other drivers and it seems likely that if his dad didn’t own the joint he would have been fired long ago. His brothers Victor (Delaney) and Aleksy (Moynihan) are exasperated with his aimlessness. David needs some focus, a reason to be responsible.

He might have one now that his girlfriend Emma (Smulders), a cop, tells him she’s pregnant. David is thrilled and looks forward to being a dad but Emma isn’t so sure she wants him to be around. She needs stability and security; she wants to know that David will be there when he says he’ll be there and won’t leave her holding the bag every time, something he has done to her many times in the past.

David is also $80K in debt to loan sharks who are threatening to drown him in his own bathtub. To make matters worse, he’s also been served with an injunction. It seems that 20 years earlier, he’d donated sperm to make some extra cash. A lot of it, in fact. Due to a clerical/systemic error at the sperm bank, an excess of his ejacula has been used to procreate – 533 times. Yes, David is the proud pappy of 533 kids and 142 of them have filed a lawsuit to discover the identity of their sperm donor father. David had signed an anonymity clause for every one of his donations and had used the name “Starbuck” as a code to determine the source of his sperm.

Realizing he needs a lawyer, David goes to his best friend Brett (Pratt), a single father of four who isn’t respected by his children, his mother – pretty much everyone else for that matter – who happens to have a law degree. Brett actually welcomes the opportunity – this is the kind of case that can become a landmark and establish a fella in the profession.

David is given for reasons that I dare not even guess a folder full of profiles of the 142 progeny who are involved in the lawsuit and given strict instructions not to open them. David being David, he opens one up and discovers that one of his sons (Hopkins) is a basketball star. Heartened, he decides to open other profiles and discovers that each of them are pretty decent kids, from the one who is a struggling actor (Reynor) to one who is struggling to get her life together after years of drug addiction (Robertson).  One of them, Viggo (Chanler-Berat) manages to figure out David’s identity and rather than disclose it moves in with him.

Becoming the guardian angel for his kids turns David’s life around, despite Brett’s protestations that he is potentially harming his own case. Will David’s past sins threaten everything or will his new attitude finally make him the man Emma thought he could always be?

This is an English-language remake of the French-Canadian comedy Starbuck which played this year’s Florida Film Festival and had a brief theatrical run at the Enzian earlier this fall. The same director who did that does the remake and I’m not sure whether or not that was a good idea – this is virtually a shot-by-shot, line-by-line remake that differs only in minute details from the original.

Which is fine because I liked the first film so much but the remake doesn’t really add anything. Vaughn is as affable and as charming an actor as you’ll find in Hollywood and this is the sort of role that he has built his career on, albeit David is less of a fast talking con man than some of Vaughn’s other performances. In fact contrasting Vaughn with David Huard who played David in Starbuck I think if anything Vaughn is more laid-back than Huard was. Who would have predicted that?

The things that made the first film so enjoyable are present here as well – the heartwarming charm, the gentle humorous pokes at fatherhood. Although the subject matter of sperm donation has an inherent sexual component and it is alluded to in a couple of jokes, this is largely as family-friendly a comedy as you’re likely to find from a major studio release these days and it certainly lacks the raunch of Judd Apatow’s work or the Hangover series. Some might say that there’s not enough edge here but that’s entirely a matter of personal taste.

As pleasant comedies go this one is inoffensive and while I would certainly recommend Starbuck ahead of this, those who haven’t seen the former will certainly enjoy this one, quite possibly a lot. While the average movie critic and cynical indie-loving film buff might decry this as too manipulative, a little manipulation can be a good thing from time to time.

REASONS TO GO: Vaughn is as engaging as ever. Funny and heartwarming.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks edge and energy. Doesn’t add anything to the original.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of sexual material, a bit of drug content, some foul language and brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Pratt gained 60 pounds to play the out-of-shape lawyer Brett.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parenthood

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Book Thief

Iron Man 3


Robert Downey Jr. mans the Iron Man customer service phone line.

Robert Downey Jr. mans the Iron Man customer service phone line.

(2013) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Wang Xuequi, Paul Bettany (voice), William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, Dale Dickey, Shaun Toub, Bill Maher, Joan Rivers, Sarah Burkhardt. Directed by Shane Black

When you’re an iron man, the question is important – is it the suit that makes you, or do you make the suit? That’s the question that Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man is forced to confront in the third installment of the Marvel Superhero film series.

We begin with a prologue in Switzerland back in the ’90s when Tony Stark was just Tony Stark, the boy wonder engineer who was one of the most brilliant weapons designers on this ol’ planet Earth. He seduces one scientist – Maya Hansen (Hall) – and blows off another, Aldrich Killian (Pearce). These acts will have, as Tony narrates in voice over (which only appears at the beginning and end of the movie) a profound consequence on what is about to happen.

These days, Tony Stark is a mess. He has come back from New York after the alien invasion of The Avengers with nothing less than Post Traumatic Stress Disease. He can’t sleep, spending nights in his workshop building all sorts of new sets of armor (he’s up to his 42nd iteration) and driven into panic attacks when his experiences in New York are discussed – or even when the mere name of the city is mentioned.

Pepper Potts (Paltrow) has moved in and their relationship has become one of the few touchstones of Tony’s chaotic life but even she is frustrated, feeling like he’s slipping away from her. To make matters worse, there’s a terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin (Kingsley) who is setting off bombs all over the world, although they can’t find any bomb fragments to figure out what kind of devices he’s using that set off temperatures of over 3000 degrees.

To make matters worse, Aldrich has shown back up, the head of a think tank called AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) that has made him a wealthy man. No longer the long-haired nebbish geek, he’s confident and good-looking, capturing Pepper’s attention and Stark Head of Security Happy Hogan’s (Favreau) ire. However, Happy is caught up in one of the Mandarin’s explosions at Graumann’s Chinese Theater and is gravely injured.

Now it’s on. Tony goes on TV essentially daring the Mandarin to come get him – and even gives him his address. The Mandarin obliges him, taking out Stark’s Malibu in him just as Dr. Hansen comes to warn him to get out. He manages to save Pepper and Dr. Hansen but is trapped in the rubble which falls into the sea. He is presumed dead.

Of course he’s not; his armor, with a flight plan preset by Jarvis (Law), Tony’s computerized butler/assistant, takes him to Tennessee. He meets a young boy (Simpkins) who idolizes him, alternately helping him get back together even though he has nothing, and setting off new panic attacks. Tony really does need to get together; the Mandarin has plans not only for taking out the President (Sadler) but for perpetuating eternal terrorism and counter-response. Tony is far away from his armor and his friends in the Avengers. He will have to take on the Mandarin with just his intellect and his ingenuity. Will it be enough?

This is the first Iron Man movie not directed by Jon Favreau who still appears as an actor however, which he likened to being a grandfather who gets to play with the baby without having to change its diapers. Newcomer Shane Black had previously worked with Downey on the critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang as well as having written the Lethal Weapon series. Having already scored big numbers in international box office before even opening in the United States, this movie is poised to become this year’s box office champion and quite possibly the highest grossing film of the Iron Man series.

There’s good reason for it. While the tone has changed somewhat, the movie still retains much of what has made the series so successful – the dynamic special effects, the clever gadgets, Tony Stark’s irreverent attitude and the epic sweep. It also puts a focus squarely on Tony Stark which Favreau also did – and that’s a wise thing. When you have an actor the caliber of Downey, you’re crazy not to take full advantage of him – and Black ain’t crazy.

Stark is one of the most complex, layered characters in all of comics and that has translated to the film version. He’s arrogant, sure – but there’s a vulnerability to him here that is so much more evident than in the first two films. He is battling insecurity – when you encounter a living God and a living legend, it’s easy to develop an inferiority complex. He is terrified of losing the one relationship that matters to him, the only one that has since his father passed. Deep down, Tony is a generous, heroic guy – but he doesn’t have all the social niceties developed. Downey brings all of these aspects to life and integrates them nicely. Tony Stark is as fully realized a character as we’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.

His antagonists are not nearly as well-realized which is often a problem in superhero movies, particularly those that have become franchises. Kingsley has great fun with the Mandarin, giving him a bizarre accent that accents certain syllables (i.e. “teach-urrrrrrr”) that make him sound like a menacing idiot. This is explained late in the movie to my satisfaction however – but it still is a bit off-putting at first. Pearce is an underrated actor who is as versatile as they come. Some critics have huffed that they don’t understand how a snub in an elevator can turn a nerdy scientist type into a psychotic megalomaniac but they must have fallen asleep during the movie as Killian has a soliloquy which partially explains his change – and one gets the sense that his marble bag wasn’t quite full to begin with.

Paltrow hasn’t really gotten to run with the Pepper Potts character much – and she doesn’t get to here although she does have a couple of good scenes, and she does get to don the armor – well, Tony has the armor cover her to protect her as their home is buffeted by rockets and machine gun fire from attack helicopters. Still, the character is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and she has a mind and a will of her own. She makes a formidable girlfriend for Tony, although that aspect is still yet to be explored fully. Then again, the movie is about the superhero, otherwise it would have been called Pepper Potts 3.

Cheadle and Favreau don’t get much screen time either, although both make the most of what they get. As I mentioned earlier, this is very much a Tony Stark movie even more in a lot of respects than Iron Man, although there are oodles of different armors which all come to play in the climactic battle (the website, which you can reach by clicking on the picture above, has details about some of them). For fans of the comic book, some of the story line borrows from the Extremis storyline although there are some significant changes.

The movie is the longest of the trilogy and might have benefitted from a bit of judicial trimming in the middle third. The final battle, which consists mostly of Tony’s suits flying about battling super soldiers infected with Extremis who are super strong and can shoot fiery breath from their mouths is spectacular but similarly overlong.

The reason to go see this is not just the eye candy however, although there is plenty of that. It’s Downey and a pretty dang well-written script. While I personally think the first Iron Man was better than this on a number of different levels, this one is a slight improvement on Iron Man 2 and while there isn’t a fourth film on the immediate horizon (word comes that Disney is in negotiation with Downey to extend his contract which expired after this film – if not just for future Avengers movies) the credits clearly state that Tony Stark will return. I for one look forward to it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Explores whether the hero is the suit or in the suit.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little too long; could have used a bit of editing.

FAMILY VALUES:  Superhero violence and some sexually suggestive content. Fine for all but the very youngest comic book fans in your household.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dragon tattoos on Aldrich Killian’s chest are actually drawings of Fin Fang Foom, an Iron Man villain from the comic books.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100; the movie is getting solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 2

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Sightseers

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel


Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Sex in the early '60s: Hef and the Bunnies.

(2009) Documentary (Metaphor) Hugh Hefner, Bill Maher, Tony Bennett, George Lucas, Joan Baez, Jim Brown, James Caan, Jesse Jackson, Jenny McCarthy, Gene Simmons, Shannon Tweed, Pete Seeger, Mike Wallace, David Steinberg, Dick Cavett, Tony Curtis. Directed by Brigitte Berman

There have been many polarizing figures in the 20th century. Ronald Reagan, for example; conservatives look at him as a great president, one whose economic philosophy have shaped our economy for the past thirty years and have led us to unprecedented prosperity. Liberals look at him as the architect for our greed-dominated society and see his presidency as an American tragedy.

Hugh Hefner gets the same sort of reception. The publisher of Playboy magazine is responsible for the popularization of the centerfold. To the minds of the radical feminists, he has led to the objectification of women and is indirectly or directly responsible for the rape and abuse of women by men who have bought in to his philosophy. To conservatives, he is an immoral man, dedicated to the destruction of American society and the corruption of American morality.

Most people see the swinging lifestyle; the pajamas, the pipe, the smile and the 20-something women cavorting at the Shangri La-esque Playboy mansion. They see an octogenarian with seven girlfriends young enough to be his great-great granddaughters and yes, there is an element of the ridiculous to it. Overkill at the very least.

But there is more to Hef than meets the eye, and those who have followed his career will know that. Hef has been a crusader for First Amendment rights through his magazine, supporting the legal defense of those rights (often with cash donations) and during the Blacklisting era, printing pieces by Dalton Trumbo and other writers who could get no work elsewhere.

He has also been a champion for civil rights. His Playboy clubs and “Playboy After Dark” television show gave exposure to African-American performers who might never have gotten an audience. Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzy Gillespie and Dick Gregory all regularly worked in Hefner’s establishments. He supported Martin Luther King’s agenda both editorially and with contributions to his cause.

And he has also defended women’s reproductive rights as well as their civil rights as well. He has supported the “Equal Pay for Equal Work” theory as well as nurturing the careers of women into executive positions at his own company. He works tirelessly for the environment as well as for the preservation of jazz, an art form he’s passionate about.

Berman was given unprecedented access to the magazine’s archives and to Hefner’s own personal collection of letters and documents; she also was able to get her hands on footage from Hefner’s television shows which are some of the most fascinating moments of the film.

Hefner is often simply thought of as a pornographer and a fairly mild one at that; his pictorials tend to be much more artistic and less hardcore than those of, say, Larry Flynt or Bob Guccione. In some ways, he’s rather archaic – Playboy is essentially less of a factor in publishing the pictures of naked women than the Internet is. His legacy, however is far more complicated.

Hef didn’t invent sex but he brought it out of the recesses of puritanical dogma. He didn’t make it okay for women to like sex, but he supported the concept and helped popularize it. He didn’t objectify women – that’s been around far longer than Playboy – but he did help develop what the male ideal was for women physically (can we all say big boobs?) and make being a centerfold an aspiration for many women.

There is nothing wrong with sex. There is nothing wrong with being sexual. Pleasure doesn’t have to be a dirty word. But sex goes arm in arm with responsibility and Hef knew that. He used the prurient interest in his magazine to fund his social causes and there is some irony in that.

Tarring Hefner with the brush of a pornographer misses the point of what he’s done, and is rather simplistic and naive. I don’t always agree with his lifestyle and I wonder why he has rarely gone for women closer to his own age – I also wonder if there is too much emphasis on sex in his philosophy. Sex is, after all, only a part of life and while it is an important part, it’s not the most important part.

But that’s once again not all there is to Hefner. He has championed causes that have needed a champion, and has stood up for things that were unpopular back in the day. Most importantly, he has helped usher in a change of American values and hopefully, not all of it has to do with sex. Some of it has to do with compassion and the dignity of all people. Hugh Hefner may not be a hero to most, but in all honesty he deserves to be and this movie captures that largely unremarked upon aspect of him.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look inside the legend. Some great footage from the old “Playboy After Dark” television show. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really challenge much. Presents Hef as a bit of a saint.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity (of the Playboy centerfold variety) and a bit of sexual content as you might imagine.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berman’s previous documentary was about big band leader Artie Shaw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10,000 on an unreported production budget; I suspect the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: J.Edgar

Funny People


Funny People

Jason Schwartzmann, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill are all funny people.

(Universal) Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Eric Bana, Leslie Mann, Jason Schwartzmann, RZA, Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari. Directed by Judd Apatow

We love to laugh. Those who can make us laugh with amazing regularity own a special place in our hearts. However, the cost of that laughter can often be unbearable.

George Simmons (Sandler) is one of the planet’s top comedians. His movies have grossed hundreds of millions, and his stand-up act is legendary. He is also undeniably alone; his ex-girlfriend Laura (Mann) left him because George cheated on her. Now, George has just received some devastating news – he has a rare and fatal blood disease. His doctors want to try an experimental treatment, but the prognosis is grim.

Ira Wright (Rogen) is an aspiring stand-up who, as his co-worker Chuck (RZA) at the deli he works at opines, isn’t very funny. Ira sleeps on the couch in an apartment shared by Ira’s friend Leo (Hill) who is also a stand-up comedian (only much better and more successful) and Mark (Schwartzmann) who has hit the jackpot – he’s the lead on an NBC sitcom that, while not very good, at least pays Mark exceedingly well.

George decides to excise his demons through standup and goes to an open-mike competition at his old stomping grounds where Ira and Leo are also performing, along with Randy (Ansari), a rival comic with a biting sense of humor. George is somewhat impressed with Ira and Leo and offers them jobs as writers but Ira, in an uncharacteristic move, cuts Leo out of the equation.

The two form an odd relationship as George hires Ira to be his assistant but there’s definitely a bond between them. Ira is one of the few people…okay the only person…that George can confide in. Otherwise, George is somewhat insufferable, often treating Ira like dirt, so isolated by his own celebrity that he can’t reach out in his hour of need.

Despite the title, this isn’t a movie about comedy or even really about comedians, and despite the plot it’s not a movie about dealing with mortality either. That’s more or less a side issue. What the movie is about is isolation and what it does to us. This is a movie about human beings who happen to work as comedians, but it isn’t about being a comedian.

If this all sounds confusing, don’t be. It works as a matter of fact, particularly the first two-thirds of the movie. Where it falls flat is in the last third wherein George tries to win Laura back from her obnoxiously macho Aussie husband (Bana). Even though Mann gives a thoroughly satisfying performance in her role as George’s muse, the sad fact of the matter is that the situation here is painful in many ways and when Ira pleads “Can’t we just go now” I can empathize.

On the plus side, Sandler and Rogen both give their best performances ever. Sandler shows the kind of depth he displayed in Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me and takes it to new levels. This is far from the lovable kinds of characters he’s played in movies like Happy Gilmore or Bedtime Stories; in fact, George Simmons is a bit of a prick. It takes some courage to go as far out of his comfort zone as Sandler appears to here.

Rogen has mostly played lovable stoners throughout his career. Here, he is a bit more driven, a bit more ambitious and a little less lovable. He’s basically a decent guy and yet he screws over a friend. He is kind of sweet on fellow comedian Daisy (Plaza) but can’t bring himself to ask her out on a date and gets furious with her when she sleeps with Mark. Yes, he’s a bit of a loser but one senses he isn’t going to remain that way for long.

I liked the movie enough to overlook that final reel which doesn’t work as well. The crux of the movie seems to belong more in the relationship between George and Ira than it does to George and Laura; certainly that whole sequence could and should have been cut down significantly.

What works here works really well. The standup sequences are incredible in places, and I did laugh a lot throughout. While there is a good deal of emphasis on penis humor, it isn’t enough to be off-putting. Sadly, the movie was mis-marketed by Universal who portrayed the movie as a straight comedy and it really isn’t that, so the film didn’t do the box office it probably deserved. However, it is worth taking a peek, particularly if you like your movies to run the gamut of emotions.

WHY RENT THIS: Some genuinely funny moments as well as some genuine pathos. Sandler and Rogen are at the top of their games.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The whole winning back of his wife thing is often awkward and uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a tremendous amount of blue language and some crude sexual references; it’s R-rated stand-up comedy for sure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George and Ira are named after the brothers George and Ira Gershwin, the famous composer and lyricist who among other things, composed Rhapsody in Blue.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a lot going on, both on the 2-disc Collectors DVD edition and the Blu-Ray.  There is a video diary from Apatow that gives extensive insight into the making of the movie. Archival footage shows Sandler and Apatow appearances on Letterman, Dennis Miller’s talk show and “The Midnight Hour with Bill Maher.” There’s also a faux documentary on Randy, the Ansari character who will be getting a feature film of his own shortly and a “highlight reel” of George’s film career. There are also the full versions of the songs James Taylor performs at the MySpace Party, as well as full jams between Sandler and Jon Brion, and some rapping by RZA. The Blu-Ray version also contains an appearance on the Charlie Rose Show by Sandler and Apatow promoting the film. All in all one of the more impressive packages for any recent release.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Eat, Pray, Love