Stand-Up Falls Flat

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More laughs—belly-deep, thought-provoking ones—are to be had in the first 10 minutes of Roy Andersson’s You, the Living than in all of Judd Apatow’s Funny People. If this suggests that Hollywood’s current comedy kingpin is a less effective humorist than some relatively unknown Swedish cinema artiste who quotes Goethe, here’s why: Andersson’s a filmmaker of genuine accomplishment, Apatow is a TV hack out of water.

Apatow’s delusion that he makes movies begins with his overlong scripts: The 40-Year-Old Virgin only gave it up at 116 minutes; Knocked-Up was stillborn at 129 minutes and Funny People runs a bone-dry 146 minutes. This violates the basic stand-up, TV sitcom rule to git ‘er dun. Apatow stretches his plots as if length equals depth. Funny People’s story of celebrity-comic George Simmons (Adam Sandler) dealing with his terminal illness by hiring younger upcoming comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) as his confidante and gag writer, overextends its premise, milking sympathy in between jokes. If I gave away the outcome, only a moron would consider it a spoiler; the real spoiler is Apatow’s shallow view of impending death and redemption. He has a TV shark’s fear of losing his audience and so refuses to challenge it.

By contrast, Roy Andersson seeks a patient, thoughtful audience. You, the Living doesn’t build in commercial breaks. Andersson’s bold comic method is best described as: WAIT FOR IT. Rarely moving the camera, but packing the frame with precise, detailed imagery, he lets the ideas and emotions in a scene build to an empathetic punchline. The opening shows quarreling lovers—bulbous, middle-aged, tattooed former hipsters—walking their small dog as the woman regrets her life (“Nobody understands me”) and the man pacifies her despair: a relationship that’s grown past excitement and arrived at tolerant banality. Andersson’s unique vision of Scandinavian ennui catches the exact moment of exasperation as assorted citizens suffer through daily life. When you grasp Andersson’s truth, laughter erupts as an irresistible and explosive recognition.

Funny People pretends to be about facing up to death and the way humans dispute their obligations to each other, but the result of Simmons’ antagonism toward Ira and his intrusion on ex-girlfriend Laura’s (Leslie Mann) marriage merely indulges the egotism of Hollywood stand-up comedy types—Apatow’s biggest admirers next to New York media elites.

Andersson avoids death and cites life as his theme; he offers a wise understanding of the common miseries that people share every day. Way beyond Apatow’s sitcom sanctimony, Andersson assesses the difficulty of average relationships: scenes of a man changing positions in a queue, a man breaking his own ceiling to stop his upstairs neighbor’s noise, a bureaucrat interrupting his public celebration to deal with an ungrateful son or a religious woman praying, praying, praying for the incorrigible human race to depict the range of human futility—and by acknowledging it, lightens the load.

Trite Apatow constantly lets us know he’s “serious” by ruining Adam Sandler’s heretofore-admirable effort to bring meaning and sincerity to movie comedy. Simmons is the dullest performance of Sandler’s career; his passive-aggression is drab rather than peremptory. Using jokes to mask dissatisfaction displays his contempt. That’s because Apatow thinks that admitting one’s own lucrative opportunism absolves it. Ira’s subplot competition with his more successful roommates (Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill as sitcom actors) makes the small revelation of professional envy. Apatow soft-soaps the mean covetousness that sitcom stars can’t overcome.

This depiction of Hollywood luxe and misery lacks moral scale (Sandler went deeper in James Brooks’ near-masterpiece Spanglish). Apatow doesn’t penetrate the irony of middle-class dissatisfaction, which is Andersson’s ace. You, the Living’s shifting cast of characters go from frustration to complacency—note the forbearance of office workers, a groupie and a mother-in-law. But Apatow’s whiny characters pitch audiences into a vat of self-pity. He does nothing with Simmons calling out Ira (born Weiner) on, “You’re hiding some Judaism.” No doubt Apatow wants to celebrate a successful comic’s triumph over ethnic baggage, but the only interesting part of the two jokers’
relationship is Simmons’ noting, “Your generation worries about divorce, I worried about my dad hitting me with a baseball bat.” Taking ethnic and class trauma in stride makes Funny People ultimately useless.

One of Andersson’s characters, a psychiatrist, complains about, “Hour after hour trying to make a mean person happy; there’s no point.” That observation obliterates Funny People because Apatow is unprepared to deal with the hostility behind stand-up. He carefully illustrates stand-up lore: Simmons and Ira’s abodes are decorated with icons of Redd Foxx, Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Cosby and John Belushi. Plus, there are as many guest-star cameos as in a TV season. (Eminem’s belligerent rant left the audience silent, unconvinced.) It’s a mistake to think Apatow is scrutinizing stand-up’s nouveau-riche milieu; calling upon legions of comic friends—and Apatow’s own family (his wife and two daughters in home-video clips)—simply advertises it. But Andersson’s sense of family life is strikingly specific, like when a cement-layer dreams a humiliating dinner party and trial (“Maybe we should eat first,” a child warns).

You, the Living has a deceptively odd look: The lackluster color scheme is paradoxically full of emotion and the sallow characters full of life. Andersson masters the art of caricature; like Daumier, George Tooker or Roz Chast, he loads each frame with ideas: at least five things are going on in every shot. Compare this to the glossy look Apatow uses. His Hollywood hit-maker status commands such posturing that he hires Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to class-up his script. Kaminski gilds Apatow’s turd the way Sven Nykvist cashed a paycheck shooting for Nora Ephron.

Funny People
Directed by Judd Apatow
Runtime: 146 min.

You, the Living
Directed by Roy Andersson
At Film Forum, July 29-Aug. 11
Runtime: 95 min.

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