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Column Fri Jul 31 2009

Funny People, The Ugly Truth, In the Loop, Humpday and Soul Power

Hey, everyone. Sorry about not having any reviews for you last week, but my prep work for and travels to Comic-Con 2009 basically wrecked my writing time. But because this week is kind of light on the new releases (at least new releases that were screened in advance for critics), I've included all of the films I should have had for you last weekend. So, Funny People opens this week, and all the rest of the films in this column opened last week. Enjoy.

Funny People

The opening of Judd Apatow's third film as a director (following The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up) begins in the most perfect way possible, with an old home movie clip of what I'm guessing is either a high school or college age Adam Sandler making a crank phone call to a deli. The moment isn't even polished enough to be called a "bit," but it's undoubtably hilarious. More importantly, it could very well capture the precise moment when young Sandler knew that he wanted to be funny for a living. Of course, that's probably not what we're seeing, but I'll be damned if it don't feel like it is.

In some ways, Funny People is more the story of another young comic named Ira Wright (played with a nice innocent, bewildered touch by Seth Rogen) who is just coming into his own enough that he's good and getting better at stand-up; he has the comedy bug and is just waiting for that moment when he can start getting paid for his craft. Instead, he works at a deli during the day while his roommates (Jonah Hill, as a fellow stand-up who still gets money from his parents for rent; and a comedy writer and actor played by Jason Schwartzman, whose clips from the awful fictional NBC show "Yo, Teach" are gloriously horrible) seem less desperate. Sandler's George Simmons is a world-famous man of comedy, with albums of his stand-up recordings, posters from his many movies and photos of him with big celebrities lining the walls of his home. He gets recognized everywhere he goes, and he's pretty accommodating with the fans. During a visit with his doctor, George discovers he has a rare blood disease that has a very low chance of survival, and his doctor immediately puts him on a highly experimental drug-therapy treatment.

The same night he gets his awful diagnosis, George decides he wants to hit a comedy club stage just to vent a bit. He ends up bumping Ira to the slot after him, and he proceeds to make jokes about life and death that don't hit home with the crowd. When it's Ira's turn, Ira comments on the downer set George has just done, and George actually finds the young comic funny. He asks Ira to help him write jokes for a corporate gig the next night, and eventually recruits him to be his assistant during his time of trouble, confiding in him all of his fears and inner conflict. Sandler and Rogen have the making of one of the great comedy pairings of the decade, and it makes me ache to think these two guys might never work again, because the two of them have a much more convincing chemistry than either of them do with the women in their lives.

Speaking of women, perhaps the only place that Funny People really falters is with its female characters. I know that people make this complaint about Apatow, but I'd never really agreed with it until this movie. Ira makes a sweet attempt at a date with female comic Daisy (Aubrey Plaza from "Parks and Recreation," Mystery Team, and the upcoming Scott Pilgrim movie), but something happens that sours him (and us) to her charms — not that he wasn't given ample warning that something bad might occur if he didn't act sooner. And then there's George and the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann), whose character is so woefully underwritten that I actually grew to actively dislike the way she lived her life and the decisions she makes. Mann does her best to inject some kind of likability into Laura, but she engages in some of the very behavior that broke George and her up in the first place, and it left a bad taste with me. Her husband, played by the spirited Eric Bana (being allowed to use his Australian accent for once), is barely in the film, and we are rushed through his time on screen. First he comes across as a pretty decent guy, then he gets a bit of alcohol in him and turns into something of a raging dick. It doesn't feel natural or plausible.

I get that George would want to reconnect with his old flame to make amends before he dies, but when his experimental treatment seems to be getting the job done, he goes to visit her in San Francisco in one of the most awkward sequences in the movie. The pacing of the more serious moments seems off, but the laughs keep coming often and with much vigor.

When Apatow and company stick to the parts of Funny People involving George and Ira, we get nothing but gold, whether what's happening on the screen is comedy jousting or some really serious moment concerning the side effects of George's treatment medication or his reminiscing about coming up in the clubs. The film is one of the most authentic looks at the world of stand-up comedy I've ever seen; it's also a sincere look at what happens when a one-time stand-up schlub becomes a multimillionaire and abandons all his old friends to live in a furnished mansion and have sex with random women. This is not exactly a take on Sandler's life, but I kept putting Eddie Murphy's face into this scenario and it almost hits the spot. Apatow has gone above and beyond in putting together a persona for George that I completely bought, from the comedy pairings illustrated in the many movie posters in his home, to his famous friends who show up at his congratulations-for-not-dying party (not to ruin what you probably already know, but a very famous rapper has a note-perfect cameo in this scene), to the way George dresses down Ira when he's feeling crappy about his own life.

The good news is that there's not nearly as much of the stuff I didn't like about Funny People as there is the stuff I did like. Is it too long? Probably, but there's so much good about this movie, I don't think I'd consider making any major cuts. And the DVD deleted scenes will be extraordinary and endless. Sandler is quite good in a role that requires him to work the full spectrum of emotions, but the real surprise for me (and I believe this will be the last time he surprises me) is Seth Rogen, who is essentially a stand-in for a role that Apatow played in Sandler's life years ago. We actually get to see Rogen mature and build confidence, both as a comic and a human being, and it's a genuinely awesome transformation to watch. He's not out to steal the movie from anyone, but he always manages to, by simply being genuine and honest to a fault. Funny People has many big laughs, punctuated by some really striking moments of contemplation and reflection.


The Ugly Truth


First off, allow me to apologize for the lateness of several of these reviews. I hope they are still playing in theaters by the time these run. Actually, I take that back. I hope The Ugly Truth has been run out of theaters by torch-wielding villagers demanding the heads of lead actors Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, as well as director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-In-Law, 21). This is one of those aggressively abrasive and annoying movies that pits two highly unlikeable leads together in a battle of what passes for wits in the romantic comedy universe. And I could almost begin and end my review by explaining that Heigl's character, in particular, is so impossible to like or respect on any level that I was left with nothing to hold onto. For the most part, I'm a fan of Butler's, but in this movie, he plays a version of the chauvinistic male that not only doesn't exist in the real world, but also would never thrive on a local television news program the way he does in The Ugly Truth. In fact, the filmmakers seem to go out of their way to make every aspect of this film unbelievable, unrelatable and detestable.

Now I realize I often cry out for more PG-13 films to take the filters off and just go R-rated. Not that I think this would necessarily make The Ugly Truth any better, but the film's "adult" material is so blatantly trying to fit in amid far superior R-rated films of recent years that it feels like a preteen using four-letter words for the first time. As weird as it seems, there's a kind of finesse to the way vulgarity is used in Judd Apatow films or The Hangover or I Love You, Man. In one particularly sloppy sequence in The Ugly Truth, you can almost see Heigl's repulsion as she has to repeatedly spout out the word "cock." It's a dumb scene that results in no laughs, except maybe from people who have never used the word before. Butler certainly seems more comfortable with his swearing and double-entendre usage, but that doesn't make his performance any more compelling. I can look in his eyes and know he's 100 percent aware that he's making shit. And what's worse the three female screenwriters commit the ultimate sin by attempting to make this Class A lout into a good guy by giving him a cute nephew to play surrogate father to. Excuse me while I puke in this pity jar.

The film's asinine story involves a local news program (produced by the perpetually single Heigl) bringing Butler's character's cable access show to the airwaves to save their sinking ratings. Everyone on the program (including the husband-wife anchor team of Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins) is against the meshing of these two worlds, but Butler's "The Ugly Truth" segments about the true nature of relationships (which could easily be called "What Women Want") are a hit. But Butler's so-called "insight" is so obvious and stupid that I'm not sure who looks more ridiculous, him or the people who hired him. And, unless you've never seen a film before, you can probably guess how this movie ends and who ends up with whom. Watching this film kept me in perpetual misery as Butler makes Heigl his personal project, determined to give her advice while she attempts to date a man who lives in her building.

But any move toward genuine emotional connection between any characters is countered with and beaten down by scenes like one in which the remote for Heigl's vibrating panties end up in the hands of a child. And the laughs keep on coming. The Ugly Truth reminds me of a 15-year-old wanting desperately to hang out with his/her older sibling. It's sad, really, that someone actually thought this might pass for comedy or a relationship movie. I think I've grown to aggressively dislike Heigl as an actress and certainly as a comic actress. She just is not funny, and it absolutely quashes every attempt at producing laughs in this movie. Just to be on the safe side, I'd heartily recommend you not only don't see The Ugly Truth, but also don't go to a multiplex that is playing it. Any amount of exposure to this film could result in serious brain damage. Extreme caution is suggested.


In the Loop


There are times when I am so impressed with a film's intelligent screenplay and crisp, sharp acting that I'm compelled to see it several times just to drink it in and, frankly, make sure I didn't miss anything. Such is the case with In the Loop, the first feature from director Armando Iannucci, a veteran of British TV, including episodes of various Alan Partridge shows and "The Thick of It." As far as I can tell, the plot of In the Loop is both complicated and not really as important as the whirlwind of characters circling the story of the US and UK governments attempting to figure out whether they want to jointly go to war or not against another country. (I couldn't swear to it, but I'm pretty sure the offending nation is never named; it might be Iran, but as I said, it doesn't really matter.) But this isn't a movie about a president and a prime minister; this story is about the dozens of men and women who advise these leaders and the absurd way they collect their intelligence, present the results, and come to what appear to be foregone conclusions that pretend to be unbiased opinions. It sounds a bit bleak, I realize, but In the Loop is one of the funniest movies you will see all year, thanks in large part to an actor named Peter Capaldi, playing the Prime Minster's spin-doctor/pit bull with rabies.

Capaldi's character is a vulgarian of the highest order. He turns foul language into an art form, with insults, blatant aggression and the ripping apart of subordinates as his ultimate goals. I am in awe of Capaldi's performance in this movie, and in a perfect world, he would be getting awards for just speaking. Not that the film isn't filled with great performances, but Capaldi is a force of nature that no human being can withstand. I was also quite impressed with Gina McKee as the PM's director of communications, who is an easy target and is thus on her guard constantly. Tom Hollander's British Secretary of State for International Development is the perfect blend of smarts and idiocy, as a bureaucrat almost too afraid to take a position on anything until he's got a sense of what the decision will be. He inadvertently throws his support toward military action, which sets off a chain reaction he never could have foreseen. On the American side of things, a young government administrative intern (Anna Chlumsky) writes a pros-cons paper on entering the war that becomes the battle cry for those against it.

In the Loop is never about jokes. It's about powerful and influential people with fully functional brain engaging in childlike, power-play behavior that could lead to very serious ramifications. Hardly a minute goes by when you won't be laughing at a combination of the absurdity and absolute believability of it all. I was particularly impressed with James Gandolfini's portrait of a US general who seems very much against a war but knows that whatever happens, his job and rank are safe. It's a sophisticated performance that he rarely gets to display, and it's one of the best roles of his non-"Sopranos" career. The meanness of In the Loop might be more than some can take. If that's the case, you're a rank amateur who will never appreciate good writing, searing acting and smart direction. Go put your head back in the sand, and call me when you're ready to play like a grownup. This is the darkest kind of dark comedy, and there is no other option than to love it.


Humpday


I've spend an inordinate amount of time over the last four months talking up Humpday to anyone looking for something different but still entertaining, arranging a screening for Ain't It Cool News readers, and talking at length with the film's writer-director Lynn Shelton that it seems almost redundant to sit down and write a review of the actual film. I said "redundant" but not pointless. Finding a film like this happens maybe two or three times a year, at least to me, something you find so undeniably entertaining that you want to sing about it to the world at large. And, yes, you can pretty much guarantee that the narrow-minded assholes of the world will crack jokes about how the film looks "gay" (it's not) or just dismiss it because they don't recognize any of the names in the credits (also a sure sign of a different kind of narrow-mindedness). But I challenge you to find a more laugh-out-loud film this summer than Humpday. OK, maybe you thing getting laughs is easy. Then try this on for size: Humpday also has some of the most poignant thoughts on male friendships and the tenuous bond of marriage between even the strongest couples. I recognized elements of myself and my friends in all of the characters, and at various times I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time at how universal so many of our lives can be.

The story centers on Ben (Mark Duplass), who is 10 years out of college, married, and trying to have a baby with his adorable wife Anna (Alycia Delmore). It's clear that Ben and Anna are a great couple and probably always will be. In the middle of the night, Ben's best friend from college, Andrew (Joshua Leonard, best known for playing cameraman Josh in The Blair Witch Project), shows up at his doorstep looking to crash there for a few nights. Not a great first impression for Anna, but it's clear that Andrew makes friends fast and will likely win her over eventually. Not having seen Andrew since college, Ben becomes a bit rattled by the appearance of his old friend, so much so that he begins to look at his life and how much it has changed in those years. Andrew talks a good free spirit, open-minded game, but it doesn't take long for us to discover that his drifting has been an excuse not to every be compelled to finish anything. Still, at a party the two men go to the next night, Ben and Andrew concoct a scheme to create a piece of "art" in the form of an amateur porn featuring two raging heterosexuals (them) having meaningless sex. If I could tell you how many times I've heard conversations like this over the years, you wouldn't believe me.

The film really takes off emotionally on two paths at this point. One path features Ben attempting to tell Anna his filmmaking plans; the other is about Ben and Andrew trying to rev each other up for the big night. First they talk each other out of it, then they start accusing each other of pussing out, so the festivities are back on. It's so painful, awkward, and ultimately right on target that it's almost difficult to watch the screen. The scene during which Ben and Anna finally talk it out is beyond uncomfortable, as Ben rams his foot down his mouth several times before Anna just agrees to let him do it just to shut him up. It's tough to pick a favorite performance in this movie, but Duplass has long been a favorite of mine as a writer, director (as part of the Duplass Brothers, makers of Baghead) and actor that I think the prize goes to him. This is the best acting work he's ever done, and every word that comes out of his gob is funny without him being a joke-telling machine. But in a moment of absolute sincerity, when he's confessing a story to Andrew about a crush he had on a video store clerk when he was younger, is really moving.

Leonard, as a dirty hippie, naturally made me queasy because I hate hippies. But as his Keroac exterior gives way to something far more middle of the road, I grew to like him. It's clear that the relationship he had with Ben in college was probably the last time he felt truly close to another human being, and he has a great silent moment in the film that makes you very sad for this normally smiling gentleman.

The tight staging in a hotel room of Ben and Andrew's hardcore scene is a fucking scream, and a brilliant exercise in trusting your actors and editing down your narrative to its essential elements. Somehow, director Shelton manages to make it feel like there are only three people in the room: Ben, Andrew and you, the watcher. But there's also a sense that the world is watching. It makes me anxious just thinking about that scene, but I want to watch it again and again just to lose my mind laughing. Women will probably find it all the more hilarious, simply because all men believe it's much easier for women to experiment with lesbianism. All of the men in the audience will probably be crossing their legs, anticipating the moment the pair go through with it. Either way, you'll be giggling up a storm.

Someone told me that Humpday falls into the category of "mumblecore," and I'll be honest, I never quite got what the difference is between that ridiculous bit of labeling and indie films I watched in the 1990s. There's certainly nobody mumbling in Humpday, so let's move beyond the labels and simply enjoy this impressive, naturalistic and exceedingly funny movie. You'll probably have to check your local listing a bit more carefully than usual, but this is one of those films that is beyond worth it.

Visit Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Humpday writer-director Lynn Shelton.


Soul Power


Concert docs are always tough to review, not because it's difficult to determine whether one is good or not, but because as long as the music is good, how can you really go wrong? Regardless, director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte has done a fantastic job piecing together the best of the best from the Zaire '74 concert that was held in conjunction with the "Rumble in the Jungle" Ali-Foreman boxing match that was the focus of the Oscar-winning doc When We Were Kings (on which Levy-Hinte was an editor). As that superb film gave us a fascinating glimpse into what the boxers did leading up to the fight, Soul Power does the same with the musicians, giving us not only raw and powerful performances from the best in R&B at the time but showing us how these men and women responded to being in Africa. I think the results will astonish you.

Levy-Hinte's primary concern is the music, and rightfully so. We are treated to such absolutely rockin' shows from the likes of James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz, The Spinners, and other local talent in two evenings of life changing performances. I've certainly heard Cruz's music before, but I've never seen footage of her on stage before. It's a magical thing to watch her absolute command of both her band and the audience. The film is not a greatest-hits package by any stretch. In fact, I was extremely pleased to see that, during Withers' section of the film, Levy-Hinte chose to show him playing the lesser-known, simply played "Hope She'll Be Happier." Not surprisingly, James Brown gets the lion's share of the screen time, and it is so exciting to see him in his prime as a singer, dancer and inspirer of people. I was particularly moved by both B.B. King's "Thrill Is Gone" and his musings on being in Africa, where his ancestors were forcibly removed as slaves. The entire trip clearly has an impact on him, and listening to him speak is as musical as listening to him play. With Soul Power, Levy-Hinte perfectly balances the documentary of the trip with the musical numbers, and the end result is a worthy companion to When We Were Kings. Now, the entire story of that unique event can be told, and we're all the better for it.

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