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‘Funny People’ and the Advent of the Social Network Narrative

If the public prefers disposable, computer generated product about man-babies to dramas about human relationships, then Funny People may be plugged directly in to the zeitgeist.

Post-mortems for Judd Apatow's Funny People began to appear before the movie completed its first week in wide release. These covered the mixed critical reception, unsubstantiated behind-the-scenes accounts, a sharp box-office decline, and prognostication about the careers of its director and actors.

One could justly argue against the haste and poor taste of declaring the film dead so prematurely. Yet even this reception is an indicator of what makes the film a fascinating misfire -- specifically its inextricable identification with a culture that is well connected, yet limited and attention-deficient. The lackluster response indirectly validates the film's weary, uneasy perspective on modern interpersonal communication.

Critic David Bordwell would likely define Funny People as a network narrative, as its plot is distributed amongst three protagonists, each with attendant subplots and supporting characters. While that classification is useful in a generic sense, the film is better described as the first or most unadulterated example of a social network narrative. As such, it could represent a noteworthy turning point for American film comedy, of which Apatow has been declared a future king. But does the film reveal the birth pangs of fresh narrative strategies, or is this the promised end?

The Apatow touch has, in recent years, become so elevated that some equalizing event was bound to occur. At some point, it naturally becomes improbable for a successful producer/writer/director with a still-developing style and growing following to fulfill the awareness and acclaim that position him as the next Woody Allen. One readymade criticism of Apatow concerns his television roots and the episodic tendency of his film scripts. The extended running times and overlong conclusions of his films do seem to buck the tight narrative rhythms of more traditional film comedies.

Yet the difficult structure of Funny People, about which there has been much complaining, is not so much a continuation of Apatow's prior lack of resolution-discretion as it is an inversion of his normal formula. The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up are films that begin from accessible, seemingly irresistible premises that satisfy as setup even if they lose a little steam at the punchline. Whereas Funny People has a first act that runs much, much longer than necessary. The lack of substantive plot development in the film's protracted opening is unsuccessfully masked by waves of incidental information.

In brief, the first act concerns popular film comedy actor George Simmons (Adam Sandler), who is disillusioned with his success, having appeared in mindless films that digitally place his face and/or upper body on computer generated beings like a baby and a merman. When Simmons learns of his terminal illness, he struggles with the emptiness of his lifestyle and selects rookie comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to assist and write standup material for him.

When reviewed succinctly, these seem like interesting events that could create compelling dramatic action. But Apatow curiously lets the movie get away from that potential drama over and over again, at times literally privileging the décor of Wright's apartment above plot development.

Like a Facebook profile, the walls of the apartment (primarily the domain of Jason Schwartzman's successful sitcom actor Mark Taylor Jackson) are decorated with what appear to be the obsessively collected and exhibited evidence of credible influences. Since Wright, Jackson and third roommate Leo Koenig (Jonah Hill) are all comedians, it would make sense for them to have posters and portraits of their idols here and there. But the apartment is almost creepily saturated with the mugs of comedy legends staring down on the young men as they struggle with and against the comic/comic actor's lifestyle they want so badly to attain and sustain.

At first, this seems like a smart way to foretell Wright's eventual relationship with Simmons, who is the film's foremost sad clown. But long after that association has reached the height of its impact, the movie continues to shove the images, names and brands of other funny people in the viewer's face with such intensity and pace that one begins to wonder if this is Apatow's own legitimizing at work, rather than that of the characters. The insecure subtext for all of this decoration threatens to undermine the credibility of the director, whose comedy credentials were already solid and largely unquestioned.

This ‘Facebook strategy’ continues, with Apatow presenting his friend list at a celebratory party sequence that, despite providing one of the film's biggest laughs via Norm Macdonald, seems ostentatious rather than motivated by the plot. This Who's Who of comedy talent is impressive largely at the level of recognition, and many of the performers here could effortlessly kill if given the space, but they are used as props rather than characters.

There are multiple other moments in the film that mistake this associational strategy for storytelling. For a film that throws barbs at Facebook -- at an onscreen corporate MySpace gig, no less -- Apatow returns again and again to the stuff of online relationships. Minor textual examples of this include Koenig's popular web video of kittens and other shenanigans, as well as a playlist that Wright assembles and plays for Simmons, enabling the songs to correspond to emotions the script hopes to inspire. The larger instances of the social network culture on the film's narrative are the actual home videos of Apatow's friends and family that the director "posts" throughout the film.

This weaving of real life excerpts into the fictional script, overestimates the impact such material will have on an outside audience. While much criticism of Funny People raises the issue of nepotism, Apatow's casting of his friends and family is not the film's problem. After all, many popular contemporary directors consistently work with troupes that heighten their authorial signature and brand, and almost all of the actors in Funny People, Leslie Mann included, perform winningly. But when the actual life of the performer is used to illustrate the fictional identity of the character, the film risks becoming too insular.

As Apatow is a close friend to Sandler, a husband to Mann, and a father to the two little girls who appear in the film, he has a unique double awareness of each performer that is not shared by the audience, regardless of how much private information he presents in the service of their onscreen personas. A disconnection of this sort is especially unfortunate, as the abbreviated middle and concluding acts of the film that feature Mann's Laura ("the one that got away" from Simmons) are where the actual heart of the movie exists.

For its first hour and a half, Funny People uses ineffective verisimilitude and extra-textual exposition to eventually set up a reunion of these two characters, who embody the film's most significant human connection. Simmons' dying enlightenment is to find that bond, and while the comedy club audiences and protégé Wright provide seriocomic trial runs, Laura is his destination and the fulcrum of his emotional life.

When this becomes clear to the audience, the script's preceding events seem all the more overcooked. The face-to-face interaction of Simmons with Laura, complicated by her changing romantic relationship status, is so alive with possibilities of plot that it's a shame the movie gets distracted by an overload of story adornment along the way.

Facebook and other social networking tools have the high purpose of enabling an approximation of face-to-face interaction, but there also exists the great potential for misunderstanding, self-centeredness and clutter. Funny People might be evidence that the narrative film, another form that at its best links to real experience in eloquent ways, is being overtaken by a similar surfeit of information and lack of discretion.

As Paul Mellender writes about the death of art, "Artists are equally at fault as they have become beggars to the market place or are simply very highly skilled fans of art forms without the central intention." Apatow's central intention is always very heartfelt and remains so in this film, even if the form is cripplingly disproportionate and at odds with itself. The result is an earnest film that falls victim to the structures of the very empty culture it examines.

If the marketplace treats the film coolly, then the lasting predicament for any real-life George Simmons is not that he might die alone, but that the public actually prefers disposable, computer generated product about man-babies and mermen to dramas about human relationships. In that sense, both the box office results and pessimistic perspective of Funny People connect to the zeitgeist in an alarming manner. And all you can do is laugh.

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