Posts Tagged 'Comedy'

Tone Deaf

Been thinking the last few days what to write about. There’s a lot going on right now, everywhere you look. My group of friends has spent a lot of time talking about Tyler Clementi and the tragedy of that entire situation. If you think it’s simple, you haven’t been paying attention. But the question is, how to write about that, really write about it in a way that says anything useful? Then this thing with the trailer for “The Dilemma” happened and people started writing about it (like Roger Ebert’s online editor, Jim Emerson. Read his opinion here and watch him misconstrue the parabola of cultural acceptability for the comedic potential of the word “gay”). The more I read about it, the more annoyed I became and here we go. The offending trailer:

Mostly, it shakes down like this. “The Dilemma” is a painfully un-funny looking movie, in which stars Vince Vaughn and Kevin James show director Ron Howard how to collect a paycheck. There’s a bland but harmless joke about electric cars being gay. Harmless? Yes. Harmless because it isn’t tactless because it wasn’t written, directed, or performed in conjunction with or response to  (and certainly not to make light of) any of the tragedies involving homosexuals that have been occurring over the past couple months. Look at the tone of the joke’s delivery. This is not hate speech. There is such a thing as hate speech. This isn’t it. This is poor timing for a movie whose release date has probably been set for a long time. If it had been released six months ago, would any of this be happening? (True, but it’s not six months ago. It’s now. Better idea would have been to use that joke as a secondary trailer around mid-late December.)

Which in any case didn’t stop Anderson “Don’t Call Me Silver Fox” Cooper from being upset about it on “Ellen” recently, and which didn’t stop GLAAD from grossly over-reacting and contesting that “it plays on the sorts of stereotypes that give license to bullies and should be taken out.” (Also let’s pause to reflect that the outrage has centered at a) Vince Vaughn and b) Universal, who is releasing the movie. What about the writers? Has there been confirmation that this scene was improv? What about director Ron Howard? What a poorly conceived outrage.)

And all of this is extremely eyeball-roll-inducing, but how’s this for some real bullshit hypocrisy: this past Sunday on “60 Minutes,” there was a story about rapper Eminem. An awful story. A pointless story. More akin to a junior high-school newspaper profile (If you have 13-ish minutes to be bored, watch it here). “Hey Em, had a hard life?” “Sure did!” It sheds no light on his mixture of self & persona. It wades only into the kiddie pool of his lyrics’ power. And the interviewer was… Anderson Cooper. He quotes some of Eminem’s lyrics – which are more incisive and offensive than anything Vince Vaughn has done since… “Made” ? – and after Eminem essentially shrugs it off by saying he don’t hate nobody, the matter is dropped.

And strangely, surprisingly, confoundingly, Cooper seems to accept this answer as sufficient. Now, I happen to be a fan of Eminem, but if I’m choosing something potentially homophobic and damaging to get pissed off about, “The Dilemma” is tee-ball compared to Eminem’s lyrics. So why all the commotion about the movie? Why not a single question in the interview about how Eminem’s lyrics could be used to incite bullying and violence?

If you watch the segment with Cooper from Ellen’s show, the discussion is focused on the power of specific words. And to an extent, I agree. Words have meaning, meaning has power. What it doesn’t mention is the all-important discussion of tone. It is tone and context, not content, that make a thing funny or mean or hurtful (or wonderful or beautiful).

Which of course makes things more difficult, because tone can be so widely interpreted and terribly misinterpreted. But the fact that it’s tricky and gray and confusing isn’t a reason to completely transfer the issue to something more palatable and limit it to a list of words that can’t be said. This simplifies a complex issue and promotes an easy solution while the issue continues to get worse. And if word usage is such a major response trigger, then where is the outrage at Eminem? Has GLAAD just conceded that fight? His albums still sell in the millions, so it’s certainly not that he’s become culturally obsolete. At the very least, to use a loaded metaphor, Anderson Cooper seems to be focussing on a tiny speck while trees fall all around him. Hence, hypocrisy.

What I find most alarming is that GLAAD thinks it has the right to demand the joke be removed from the movie. Lookit, it’s probably not going to be a good movie anyway. Hopefully it will be overlooked upon its release in January by the hoard of big budget holiday films and Oscar contenders trickling out to more and more theaters. Regardless, though: to suggest that their organization should be able to dictate the content of a film because they dislike it is more grossly offensive than anything “The Dilemma” has brought to the table. And the reason is the tone of the statement, the self-bestowed entitlement it carries with it.

Things are tense right now. Parents, administrators and activists (and also celebrities playing activists on TV) are in a frenzy trying to figure out what to do to stop bullying – nevermind any other factors that may be at play in these situations, we’ll take our problem’s origins in the form most easy-to-package/easier-to-rage-about, thank you very much. Over-reactions are perhaps understandable right now, but that doesn’t make them right, and being compassionate isn’t the same thing as giving in to the loudest voice around. Times like these, emotion trumps logic and big hearts trump sharp minds. And as a result, is it any big surprise that things are getting ridiculous?

Apatow Enters Adulthood

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Oh to be a fly on that wall

I saw “Funny People” last night, and I just can’t stop thinking about it. It’s the new movie from writer/director Judd Apatow, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll probably have to wait for DVD, because unfortunately it’s kindof come and gone in theaters. Maybe it wasn’t the movie people expected when they heard Apatow, Seth Rogen, and Adam Sandler were making a movie together. Maybe they saw the trailer and were turned off (most of that material isn’t even in the movie, either. Bad marketing team…bad).

Apatow’s 3rd film is his longest, at about 2 ½ hours. It’s also the darkest, meanest, most grown-up, and least crude. I don’t know if it is his best film, I like them all, but something has definitely changed. His other movies were simpler and more direct. I’m sure there was some improv, but I never got the sense that the movie was being put on hold to watch friends joke around. If it had, this thing would be 4 hours long.

Apatow has a penchant for writing male friendships, but until now those friends have been aimless man-children and the movies have formed the path to adulthood. Here, he grows them up, and instead of six or seven, there are three ambitious friends, who are all trying to start careers in LA as actors or comedians. Kindof my place in life… RIGHT NOW.

To me, the movie is all about notions of success. Different kinds. Different ways to get it. How are you supposed to feel when your friend is the lead on a sitcom? Do you hate him for the success, are you proud of him, do you try to get a guest spot on there? How do those feelings change if the show isn’t any good? Jason Schwartzman’s character is the sitcom star (see sweet fake clip from it below), he leaves his paycheck stubs around, he blabs about wanting a role in the new Tobey Maguire movie, he’s just realized he may be just successful enough for women to throw themselves at him. In many ways, Schwartzman’s is an early version of the Adam Sandler character, who’s done countless awful looking comedies because they pay, and has become as egomaniacal as he is lonely. There are a couple of moments where both characters show someone their work, and no one is laughing. Sandler has stopped caring, he knows it’s just a paycheck, but Schwartzman tries to play it off and makes excuses for it.

Then, there’s Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, trying to make it as stand-up comics. They do gigs for free, they just want to be recognized, they want some small inkling of success to get them by. Rogen seizes the opportunity to write jokes for the Sandler character, Jonah Hill jumps at the chance to be on his friends’ lame sitcom.

At dinner before we went to see the movie, my roommate Adam and I were talking about the downfall of Charlie Sheen, and the sad reality that more people watch “Two and a Half Men” (which is like a real version of “Yo Teach!”) than “The Office” or “30 Rock” and I asked, “What would we do if someone wanted to hire us to write for “Two and a Half Men” ? Because we’re nobody and we just want to get our foot in the door, wouldn’t we take it? Isn’t that what you do? You write or direct or act in or get on-set of anything you can stomach, hoping to get far enough to do the things you really want to do. 2008’s Apatow-produced, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” where Jason Segal was doing music for a CSI type show, and the titular character talked about doing movies that were the “right move” for her career. Even the Tina Fey character on “30 Rock” has a past where she was one of the ladies of the night, advertising for a phone-sex hotline.

The list could go on forever, because among TV and movies that deal with this idea, there are always horror stories of how people got their foot in the door. It’s a string of unfulfilling prospects until you find your break. IF you get a break. It’s not guaranteed. And the question is, how are you supposed to be proud of yourself doing this, particularly when this may be all you ever do? One side says you have a job and at least attempt to bring something to it. Therefore, you should be happy with yourself. The other side says that it can be a fool’s errand, buying exclusively into the business side of what you used to do because it made you happy and wanted to do because you felt you should.

I go back and forth with these competing notions, and maybe the reality is somewhere in between, but the fact is I’m not even in a position right now where I can figure it out. “Funny People” is sortof about all of these things and different stages of success, embodied by different people. Sandler’s character has lost something, and the movie traces his attempts to get it back, from his health, to his career, to the woman he loves.

In the credits for the film, Paul Thomas Anderson is thanked. I learned that during the editing process, Apatow brought in a few directors to get their input, among them Anderson (who directed Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love” and James L. Brooks (who directed him in “Spanglish”). It shows. Perhaps Brooks helped him balance the personal drama of the final act with the film’s comedic sensibility? And though it is pure conjecture, it’s not ridiculous to assume that P.T. Anderson helped him with one of the most surprising aspects of the film: its meanness. Many of Andersons’s characters have an edge to them that is painful, hurtful, and hilarious all at once. Think of how much verbal abuse Seth Rogen’s character takes from Sandler. This isn’t the light-hearted ribbing from “Knocked Up,” there is a real darkness and cynicism to this character that was fascinating to see, particularly because of how nice Sandler is in real life. For me, this was like a warning. The character isn’t mean because of his fame. He’s mean because he was a mean person to begin with. Becoming rich and famous just gave him a lifelong excuse not to change. This is one of Sandler’s best performances, and it isn’t all negative. He modulates his anger with actually caring for one or two people, and he does respond when something is genuinely funny. And in maybe Apatow’s most brilliant and surprising move, the film begins with old home videos of Sandler doing funny voices and prank-calling people. Reminds you why you have to like Adam Sandler, even if it’s in spite of yourself, even when he makes bad movies. Luckily, this is one of the good ones.

One Hell of a Night

Damn, that baby is Gangsta!

Damn, that baby is Gangsta!

 

A few months ago when I saw the preview for “The Hangover,” I thought it was another Apatow wannabe. 4 man-children in Vegas. Ready. Aim. Dick-jokes. But seeing more and more previews eventually swayed me, and I started seeing what the movie was doing. Tiger in the bathroom, finding a baby, Mike Tyson, Ed Helms without a tooth, missing groom…Hmm… they could be on to something.

They are. The movie is kindof a return to form for comedies in that it is written, it is plotted, and very well, both. I love the Apatow movies and “Superbad” and the like, but you can feel when movies rely too much on improv (“I Love You, Man” I’m looking at you, you were only okay) or when they’re probably going to be 80% concept and 4% funny (“Land of the Lost” get outta my face). Here, every scene adds something, and the movie clips right along. And good lord is it funny! I mean, FUNNY!!! The movie is essentially a series of comic setups for the 3 main characters as they look for their friend and try to remember last night, and they play off of each other really well. It’s funny and natural and the movie gives itself the advantage of building its scenes around a collective confusion. That need to find Doug drives everything, and because we don’t know anything more than the characters, we get to figure things out as they do. And since no one can remember last night, every new plot point is a bigger laugh, as we see just how ridiculous and crazy the night was.

Go see this movie. Check out how Bradley Cooper is a kickass leading guy, how Zack Galifianakis plays the dullard better than anyone and how Ed Helms followed the Steve Carrell path into movies and avoided a disaster like “License to Wed.” Helms is probably the most believable character in the movie and his character’s arc with his girlfriend is really very satisfying. It’s rare for a movie to be this overtly unsentimental about its characters and still manage to make us really care about them.

You seriously have no idea how funny this movie is. You have no idea how much you’re going to love it. Go see it with a bunch of people and laugh your ass off. You’ll feel better.  I know I do.


It Has Come to This

June 2017
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