Welcome to”Another Movie Guy?”! This week I wondered whether I’d be able to find a connection between two new releases, Funny People and Burma VJ. One is a documentary about journalists who expose the truth about a military junta, whereas the other is a comedy about ill-behaved comedians. After Funny People, I left the theater in a beleaguered state, and it dawned on me that both movies are about forty minutes too long. Moreover, I wanted to like them more than I did. Unfortunately, the respective directors had too much faith in weak material.
Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to watch an open mic night. Several comedians performed, including one who embarrassingly bombed. At first the audience gave him the benefit of a doubt. Then he began a tedious bit about plastic surgery, and good will gave way to jeers and sarcastic laughter. The comedian’s only recourse was to discuss his insecurities and to insult the audience. Such a breakdown informed my thoughts on Funny People, Judd Apatow’s ambitious new comedy. It shrewdly examines a man who only knows how to be funny and mean, and what might happen if he’s forced to take stock of his life. The result is honest, yes, but not particularly rewarding. Short on laughs and long on running time, Apatow’s third directorial effort falters.
Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, a sellout comedic actor who gains massive wealth with high-concept Hollywood garbage (not unlike Sandler himself). Leaving his mansion for the doctor’s office, George gets bad news: he has a rare blood disease, and the experimental treatment he’s given only has an eight percent success rate. Without friends, Simmons wanders to a comedy club, a place where he can be honest and people might listen. There he meets Ira (Seth Rogen), a struggling comedian who is jealous of his successful roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman). Much to Ira’s surprise, he’s asked by George to write some jokes for an upcoming corporate event. Ira agrees, and quickly becomes George’s confidant/whipping boy. Abusing the younger comedian is not rewarding enough, so George turns to Laura (Leslie Mann), his One Who Got Away. She still has feelings for George, and the two even consider a future together. Too bad Laura’s Australian husband (Eric Bana) is in the way.
Funny People is clearly more ambitious than Apatow’s prior movies, and here he overreaches. The problem is not with the actors. Rogen successfully plays a goofball who has trouble handling a serious situation. Sandler plays a character not unlike his roles from the mid-90s; like Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, Simmons can be obnoxious and cruel, with little empathy for others. Unlike Sandler’s goofy characters, George’s bad behavior has real consequences, and he’s a believable jackass. Some moments, particularly as Ira and George get to know one another, Sandler notably juxtaposes humor and buried pain. Still, the problem is that Funny People lacks the warm emotional core found in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Apatow’s characters are realistic and their drama is authentic, yet that does not engender an overwrought climax.
The sequence in question is a long weekend at Laura’s home. Even if it gives Leslie Mann (Apatow’s wife) a chance to really act, the climax becomes tedious. Character choices are unclear, and too often these scenes announce emotion instead of showing it. The vulgar best friends, usually an Apatow highlight, are unfunny because they’re too selfish in such a dramatic universe (this is especially true during Ira’s romantic subplot, which never gains speed). Oh, and there are numerous cameos, from celebrities and up-and-comers alike, and their clever one-liners cannot save the exacerbating final scenes. Perhaps Apatow loves his movie too much to pare it down. Like the characters of Funny People, comedians are great company when they’re on point. When they’re not funny, their company can be almost unbearable, especially with a two and a half hour running time.
With Burma VJ, director Anders Østergaard tries to accomplish a noble thing with meager material. Late in the summer of 2007, Burma saw the beginnings of an uprising, one that eventually escalated to violence. After the 1988 riots left hundreds dead, the Burmese were too afraid to speak out. Everyone considers the monks a legitimate political force, so when they protest nearly 20 years later, ordinary citizens take to the streets. Østergaard documents the uprising with the help of undercover journalists (like the recent Tehran protests, borders were closed to foreign press). Using the pseudonym Joshua, a journalist serves as narrator, and is never shown on camera. He describes how he and his colleagues would risk their lives for newsworthy images. Secret police scatter throughout the city, and Joshua can never be sure when they will spot him. As the conflict escalates, Joshua flatly notes that more deaths are the only way to stir global conscience.
The principle weakness with Burma VJ is the quality of the smuggled footage. Joshua and others had to contend with military police and omnipresent fear, and it follows they could not always get the best shot. I realize the journalists were brave and did the best they could, yet they give Østergaard little to work with, and so his documentary lacks emotional power. At the height of the protests, for example, a journalist snags a shot of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (recent Gandhi prize winner), who has been living under house arrest. It should be a climactic, stirring moment, one that inspires others to act. Joshua says the image is blurry and the woman is at a distance, yet is moved to tears. Audience members lack Joshua’s immediate investment in the struggle, and will not have a similar reaction. That is not to say, however, that all the footage is uninspiring. Journalists catch moments when ordinary Burmese proclaim their desire for martyrdom, and there is suspense as a journalist hides from gunfire. Some especially stirring shots capture the scope of the protests. Østergaard and Joshua have moving stuff, just not enough for a feature-length documentary.