FIRST EPISODE : UK 08/28/2009

Comedy reborn

Funny People, Judd Apatow’s last opus, has been out in theaters in America for three weeks now, followed by Canada, Russia and Kazakhstan. Old Europe is next : the UK will be hit this afternoon, the Netherlands and Spain early September, then, among others, Germany mid-september, France and Italy in October. The overseas will not be spared : Argentina, Australia and New-Zealand are in the line. The film has not overwhelmed the summer audience in the States, but strange things are already happening in Europe. Supercilious cinema critics, even among the Parisian intellectuals, have been seen weeping and laughing like children at press screenings – sometimes embarrassingly both at the same time. This film does strange things to you. It is a natural phenomenon of its own, resembling nothing we have seen in contemporary comedy. We need to understand what exactly we are dealing with and what it is doing to us. Independencia will provide support to audiences across the world by unraveling the nature and components of the phenomenon as it spreads, week after week.

Let us start this week with a general outline summing up everything we know so far. Then we will carefully examine parts of it in the coming weeks. Many things have spread around the world from America over the last century, from nuclear power to Mariah Carey. But something more unsettling is yet to be expected. Some kind of unbelievable truth, that could be put this way : these friends you might have who are sometimes referred to as freaks, nerds and geeks, friends that were always awkward around the opposite sex, better at ease in the context of same sex exclusive friendships, who cultivated a weird sense of humour and an intensive practice of masturbation, are the bearers of a more human perception of life and of a tender gift to create happiness around them, no matter where they are. Apatow is now confident that the sexually obsessed farting teenagers or older virgins that populated his earlier comedies (Forty year old virgin in 2005 and Knocked Up in 2007) – or the well-named NBC show to which Apatow collaborated in 1999-2000, Freaks and Geeks – can now evolve out of their natural environment and bring their magic to the rest of the world, because nothing will resist their very special charm. Not even death. Which brings us to the subject of Funny People.

Put a guy who just learnt he has a severe type of leukemia at a terminal and inoperable stage in the hands of these guys, and see what happens. Take George Simons (Adam Sandler), the most cynical and lonely stand up comedy artist, depressed by the news of his imminent death, and let him hire as a personal assistant and writer – to produce the jokes he no longer has the desire to come up with – Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a young man belonging to the above mentioned kind of people. Let them bloom together, day by day, as the disease unfolds. This is the strange evolution Funny People is pushing forward, with a curious mixture of emotions, and an object eventually difficult to label between comedy and melodrama. Since Apatow’s previous films have been the flagship of many other films of the same kind, with friends and favorite actors or collaborators as writers, producers, directors etc., from Superbad to Step Brothers and Pineaple Express, should we get ready for a new era of “melo-comedies”, with geeks bringing tender relief and humanity to all possible areas of sadness in the world ? Maybe we should.

This new trend has only been made possible through a radical innovation in the form of cinematic expression. It has been noted by critics about the two previous films that there is a moment, often in the last third of an Apatow film, where the engines stop and the film starts to float into the air, as the scenes stop being fueled by any kind of urging narrative expectation and the film just lets the characters be. It is at this very stage that a strange kind of intimacy between people that are not doing much beyond sharing a moment of their daily life arises. Funny People has radicalised this peculiarity : there is no engine any longer, none at all. It is from the very beginning that scenes start running freely, so that even the bits with some kind of narrative acceleration (for instance the part about getting Laura – George’s ex – , back) remain open to a contemplative recording of daily life. The amazing thing is that this emptiness has achieved such a density that Apatow can now use any small element of this atmospherical rendering to strike one of the various affective strings his story has intertwined. To attempt a risky comparison for a comedy that probably did not ask for so much, one could venture to say that this ability to blend emotion in the almost zen absorption in the rhythm of daily life has not been seen much on the screen since the later works of Japanese classic Ozu.

« A show about nothing ». Fans of Seinfeld will remember such a formula was the goal set by the famous NBC show of the nineties. And one will also remember that stand up comedy was already the anchor for such an attempt, with all episodes portraying the alchemical transformation of daily life into stand up material – to the point where stand up parts would only serve as a mere frame for the real work of art : daily life itself in Jerry’s kitchen or at the local diner. Funny People is using the same affinity stand up has with daily life on the cinema screen, but from a very different angle. Let us only point at one key difference for the moment : Seinfeld never was about being humanistic, or feeling your friend’s tenderness. Quite the contrary. And Seinfeld was never about maturing. Masturbation never was a spiritual path towards altruism and tenderness : it was all about remaining « master of your own domain ». Funny People is a complete different cocktail of stand up and life. We need to get a closer a look at its precise chemical composition. And stand up has also a new function here : it serves as a cross-roads where at least two generations of comedy meet – such an encounter being another ambition of the film.

Let us now wait for the phenomenon to strike the United Kingdom. There would be much to say about the way British television has been using the English geek as a modern hero, for instance in the E4 show Skins. Britain has an approaching model to Apatow’s specimens under the guise of a character like Sidney “Sid” Jenkins (Mike Bailey) through which one of the essential colours of the emotional spectrum of the show was achieved. But there remains a huge difference – on which we will come back once you have seen the film. Have fun, and much more.

par Arnaud Macé
jeudi 28 juin 2012

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