RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 15: Andrew Niccol’s “In Time” (2011)



The Players…

Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy and Vincent Kartheiser, with Olivia Wilde and Johnny Galecki.

The Story…

You know the old saying, “Time is money?” In dystopian, future LA time is not only money, it’s life. So when one day poor Will rescues a suicidal, century-holding businessman deliberately and literally wasting his time, it sets off a series of events that will take him deep into forbidden territory: the affluent suburbs of the absurdly wealthy. There, Will discovers that the 1% indeed lead their lives much differently than he does.

They have all the time in the world.

The Rant…

Remember a few weeks back we took a spin with Will Smith in I, Robot? I got all heady about the place and value of science fiction as a genre, with movies and otherwise. S/F tales are essentially all about the human condition under very tight scrutiny. Said scrutiny usually lends itself towards very specific messages S/F gussies up with a lot of deceptive whiz-bang. You wanna get down to it, Star Trek isn’t about boldly going anywhere. It’s about learning to get along with each other. Blade Runner has less to do with Harry Ford retiring Replicants than asking the age old question, “Who am I and where am I going?” ET was about family, not rescuing the titular character. Close Encounters was about communication, not necessarily with Greys. And Supernova was about a cut James Spader boning Angela Bassett. You know, the human factor.

Keeping this in mind—no, not the f*cking stuff—S/F has either gotten a bad rap or a slipshod execution at the movies. For every Matrix there’s a Johnny Mnemonic (Oh, Keanu. Such a dodgy career). I think this happens not because S/F is such a niche market but Hollywood displaying evidence time and again that they have all the managerial skills of a stalk of celery when it comes to packaging the product. S/F isn’t about warp drive, but human beings. Hollywood smiles and nods and green lights another jillion installments of whatever fevered idea is borne from JJ Abrams’ demented brain.

To better explain what I mean, the “science fiction as legit cinema but not really” scenario, plays out kinda like it did in the late 60s music industry.

Hear me out.

As told in Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain’s historical Please Kill Me, he was ostensibly hired by Elektra Records as a publicist, but Danny Fields adopted the mantle of “house freak” for the men in grey suits. In the late 60s, Fields was a very young gun (if not a loose cannon) working for Elektra to try and drum up some rock n’ roll talent to sign on the established folk label. Despite their acoustic leanings, Elektra wasn’t so backwards as to not smell dollars signing on some o’ them longhaired bands.

Problem: the old, doddering, monied guard knew jacksh*t about rock, let alone what demographic to pander to. Enter Fields. Reckless. Druggy. Had “connections.” And above all many decades younger than the guys who signed the cheques. Fields would venture out into, well, the field and sniff around local scenes to gather intel on what was hip—the next big thing—and report back to his superiors as which lane of travel Elektra should drive. It was how Fields got the Doors signed to Elektra despite an acrimonious relationship with Jim Morrison, which nearly prevented the record deal. But, hey. A freak’s gotta do what a freak’s gotta do. As long as Daddy’s willing to pay for your crashed car.

The brass delighted, readily admitting their pop cultural ignorance, and in rolled the talent (and cash). And Fields was justly rewarded his body mass in weed, pills and booze. Not to mention his very own office, name on the door and all that. Fields alluded years later that his relationship with Elektra’s higher-ups was symbiotic, albeit tenuous. He scammed on the old men, knowing full well they had no clue what the kids’ dug, and figured they didn’t care. “Get us the band, Danny Boy. Here’s a fat wad. By the way your office big enough?” Hell, they had Fields to do their dirty work. Just get us grist for the mill; we don’t care what grain you harvest.

Hollywood is Elektra in the 60s, and S/F is Fields on a junket (emphasis on the “junk” part). Tinsel Town doesn’t get S/F on its basal level, but if they see dollar signs in the next potential Star Wars they’ll throw a cheque at any young rapscallion of a director with a copy of The Man In The High Castle tucked into his ass pocket. That’s how all movie productions work, though. Got a good, profitable pitch? Regardless of the genre, let’s pull it back and see if it rolls.

I’d like to think that most studios who are indeed careful with their investments demonstrate some discretion regarding how a given film is made. The scenarists are allowed to write, and the suits make sure the script is up to business snuff. The director is permitted necessary creative control, provided it doesn’t infringe on company time. And cast’s SAG rights are always respected.

That’s the key term. Respect. Scripts penned by Academy-recognized screenwriters are carefully considered. Spielberg, Scorsese and Tarantino’s next projects have any possible merits weighed. Hell, even a John Williams score may be handled with kid gloves. But an S/F project? Pfft. Whatever. You, with the Avatar tee-shirt. You wanna try yer hand at this here script scrawled by some dude named Heinlein? We’re gonna go grab a beer brat. Here’s a cheque. Now get lost.

S/F as a concept for movies is at best misunderstood and at worst derided and not respected. Hollywood’s never sure as to what they have on their hands. They throw it to a Danny Fields and cross their fingers they’ll see a return on investment. Meanwhile there’s that new Woody Allen project to tend to.

A man who knows quite a bit about both writing S/F as well as writing for Hollywood is Harlan Ellison. I’ve mentioned him before, most recently in the I, Robot diatribe. He was upset when James Cameron co-opted a pair of his teleplays from the old Outer Limits TV show and morphed them into the first Terminator movie. Ellison gets a bad rap nowadays for being almost reactionary in his legal actions. He appears hair-trigger to sue anyone who might even allude to dipping into his well without a say-so. Seeing that he’s been screwed that way in the past more than once, I can’t really blame him for his defensiveness.

An argument could be made (and I’m making it) that the motives behind Ellison’s quick-tempered litigations are less about compensation lost and more about creative security; acknowledging the right of any writer to claim ownership of their work first and whatever benefits said work may reap second. So long as it respects the writer, their work and acknowledges both the effort and time it took to finish the final project. Simply put, you f*ck with a writer’s muse and livelihood, you’re pissing down their throat. Be it Hollywood, a New York publishing house or any dimbulb with a blog, respect the work and its creator or face some consequence. Even Fields eventually got the sack from Elektra.

I only bring this up because In Time—even before it hit theaters—riled Ellison and his retribution was swift. He claimed the movie’s storyline was lifted from one his best known short stories, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said The Ticktock Man.” The general gist of the story describes a rose-colored dystopia where instead of time serving the people, it gets served itself. Anyone who wastes time gets it taken out of their lifespan by the titular Ticktock Man and his hordes to maintain a balance. Something like that, and for the record if I misconstrued the story’s actual message or failed to honor Ellison in any way, it was unintentional. Please call off any dogs. I loved “Paladin Of The Last Hour.”

In Time had a similar premise. After watching it, I could see the parallels with Ellison’s story and why he would’ve been miffed. The party line reported that Ellison hadn’t even seen any advanced screening of the movie; he went off pop and threatened litigation. Again. Ellison’s gripe seems to echo my bitching about S/F not being respected in Hollywood. Might go even far to say that the brass assumed folks don’t read much anyway these days, so, yeah, scam this story. It’s only sci-fi. Make sure the ball caps are pre-ordered and ready to ship off to Costco. And get that kid with the Dick in his pants to get cracking. No, not that dick.

Anyway, In Time was another throwaway sci-fi flick that failed to respect the genre proper. Yeah, yeah. It had the current hot young stars, and the director made a splash years ago with other S/F projects. But it was lacking. So much so that after Ellison allegedly caught a glimpse of the finished film, he tossed out any notions of suing. He figured the film sucked so that it presented no threat to his legacy or bank account.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Again…

Time is short in the ghettoes of LA. Literally. Ever since the eugenic experimentations, humans only have a lifespan of 25 years. You wanna hang around longer? Better mind your time. Again, literally.

Time is now the casual currency. You wand a loaf of bread? Ten minutes off your life. A bus ride uptown? One hour, please. How about a home? One decade. And all that is only blessed if you have time to spare. Most folks in LA’s “time zones” can only scrounge up a month’s worth of groceries with a week’s worth of time. After that starve or…time out.

Will Salas (Timberlake) was born into a time zone. Only carrying maybe a few hours on his person at a time and running everywhere. He like all his friends have the clock at their back. Very few have the luxury of years at their disposal. What kind of “life” is this if you’re always staring down death at the end of the day? Or hour? Or minute?

One evening after work—pay day; Will earned another week of life, such as it is—Will and his buddy Borel (Galecki; good cameo by the way) go to grab some beers at their watering hole. To their surprise, as well as everyone else’s, there’s some strange dude buying round after round of drinks for everyone in the bar. Weird. If this guy all that time to waste, what the hell’s he doing in sh*tty dive bar in the time zone?

Rumor has it that the guy has a century on his arm, and is just pissing away his time for the hell of it. A century? Like, 100 years? And he’s just giving it away? This upsets Will. He knows that if this man is just flaunting wealth like that in a sh*t part of town, it’s sure to attract the Timekeepers. When the time cops show up, with their sniffing out suspicious use of time, better haul up stakes and get lost, lest they sweat you for possible time infringements.

And of course they show up. Leon (Murphy) and his thugs demand of the strange guy where he got that century, and why is he just pissing it away. This being a time zone—where every minute counts—having such time to waste is very suspicious. Leon’s aim is, “What you doin’ ’round these parts, boy?”

After some subterfuge, Will gets Mr. Century out of there to find haven. They bunker down and Will gets to asking questions. Like where’d he get the time and why just give it away? The man whose name is Henry is distraught. He argues that since the dawn of time-as-currency, there’s been a major imbalance in power between the haves and have-not. The wealthy have years, decades, centuries, maybe even millennia at their fingertips. The rest of the rabble have maybe days, more likely hours. Henry argues that people aren’t meant to live forever, especially at the expense of others’ time.

Both decide to crash for the night, Will’s head crammed with more questions than answers. In the morning Will finds Henry gone, and his century uploaded onto his time clock. Great. Now he’ll be a possible candidate for Leon and crew to shake him down. But Henry’s philosophizing shakes something loose in Will’s brain. If the wealthy are living forever, and Will and all his buddies have a week at best, where is all that time going?

Will decides Henry was right. Why should only a precious few live forever while the rest scramble for seconds? Will takes his new century and puts Henry’s postulate to the test. He’s going to head into the belly of the beast—the disgustingly rich suburb of New Greenwich—and figure out how the other half lives.

But in order to get to the heart of the matter, it’s going to take Will some time. Maybe even 100 years…

You know what a gimmick is, right?

Okay, now what’s the difference between a gimmick and the Maguffin?

The former was coined by Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve mentioned the term several times here at RIORI. A Maguffin is the reason—usually an object, but not necessarily so—for a movie’s being. It’s like the titular treasure from The Maltese Falcon, the Ark of the Covenant from the first Indiana Jones movie or even to some degree The Matrix. It’s what’s pursued but never fully captured. It’s kind of like a fog bank, surrounding the atmosphere of a movie without making its presence directly known or even accessible. It’s alluded to, even within casual dialogue.

A gimmick is all over the place. In movies its always in your face, right out there. It’s discussed much. Shown off too much. And eventually distracts the audience too much from the story proper. In short, it’s the opposite of a Maguffin. That device is rarely overt, allowing the audience to add their own eggs.

That being said, the time exchange facet of In Time is very clever. Time as currency. Whomever accrues the most time—as in, “the most toys”—is the most wealthy. The time-rich control society, with the ability to live forever, and the poor rabble has to keep a very watchful eye on their minutes and seconds. And when one runs out of time…well, you know.

Like I said, clever. And it gets overdone right quick.

The whole “time as currency” bit is really all that In Time has going for it as a hook. But this is my only major grievance with the film (which I’ll get into greater detail later). Oh, sure. I have others; Ellison’s cursory dismissal isn’t without merit. The issues I take here is that apart from the time clock schtick, In Time doesn’t have much originality to it, nor is the acting particularly potent, also the allegorical nature of the story isn’t kept in check. You know, bad guys wear white and that kind of thing. Like the imp that is a gimmick, everything in In Time is all up in yo grill. Word.

In Time tries to be in the vein of the relatively new sub-genre of S/F noir. I say relatively since the first proper film that tried to do this (and succeeded) was just a little over 30 years ago. In 1982, to be exact, is when director Ridley Scott unleashed to to an unwitting public Blade Runner (when I say unwitting, I mean it. The thing crashed and burned at the multiplex only to be redeemed years later when the time was right). Scott’s dour vision of future LA, all clogged like Lang’s Metropolis, environment all polluted, overpopulated, decrepit, and awash in this perpetual state of identity crisis—especially for the cast.

LA of 2017 was not shiny. Neither is the dystopian vision of Los Angeles in In Time. It’s all cement and desperation, thousands of its denizens on a short leash. There is this urgency of survival, and not unlike Blade Runner with its rampant anonymity, the world of In Time is grimy and bleak. S/F noir? Worked in Runner. Not so sure here.

The diff here is the not so subtle issue of a class system. Sure, such a thing was at the fringes in Runner (come to think of it, other classics of S/F noir like Metropolis and even the original Terminator has underpinnings of classism, too), but it’s about as subtle as a whoopee cushion filled with Kool-Whip here with In Time.

The first thing I feel watching the movie was the pressure. Now I know that tension drives a script, but it should be organic. It should not be front and center. You need to feel it, not see it. The whole gimmick with the time clock thing? Relentless. The audience can figure out the gravity of the players’ circumstances within the first fifteen minutes. This does not need to be choked down our throats. Nor does this forced urgency add up to tension. And it does very little for the message of the film.

There is indeed a message, and one bolstered by the time of the film’s theatrical release. In Time had the fortunate synchrony of being dropped when the Occupy Wall Street movement was just gaining steam. Like in real life, the world of In Time illustrates a keening picture of the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. In this case, those who have the time and the rest living on literal borrowed time. Sure, it’s not such a subtle metaphor for our wealth-happy culture, but the plot’s implications could’ve been delivered with a less obvious intrusion on our skulls.

From S/F class warfare allegory we go careening into a derivative action film. I guess director Niccol figured that too much philosophizing upsets most audiences’ attention spans. Better to have Amanda Seyfried in too much makeup and an arresting cocktail dress. That and a few bad car crashes—which doesn’t help the crappy cinematography—thrown in for good measure.

It’s a curious thing, though. Once we enter Logan’s Run mode with Will and later Sylvia everything in the story gets very linear. Odd, and perhaps another metaphor (or maybe just Niccol minding the budget). For a film ostensibly about running out of time, we end up following the straight line to the end of the story with precious few twists. I say odd because if you think about it, a straight line is all that Will knows, in contrast to over-privledged Sylvia. I like this kind of subtly. It’s the kind of setup that one doesn’t pick up on right away, but its implications slowly sinks in over, well, time. This kind of storytelling is often much more effective at conveying some deeper meaning than some gimmick overplaying its hand.

As the acting goes, Timberlake is serviceable, if not a bit wooden. Will’s desperation and eventual determination lack urgency. I know he inherits a century, but his drive winnows away as he gets deeper into enemy territory, and even more so on the lam. It’s almost hinting at all will work out in the end. The tension isn’t maintained and you know where the story’s headed, regardless how tangly the whole execution gets.

Let’s talk about Amanda Seyfried, shall we? No, not in that way. Could her role as Sylvia be any more stereotypical? Poor little rich girl, out in the cold, hard world with a mild form of Stockholm Syndrome eventually evolving into Bonnie to Will’s Clyde. Again, is this another example of trying to reign the audience back into the fold with a familiar trope? What’s more is that she and Timberlake have a chemistry that could only be called awkward. I know. Two kids from different sides of the tracks. Sometimes it works. Here it didn’t. This film is about faces, not presence.

Speaking of tropes, what truly got under my skin with In Time was the fallback on two tried and true subtexts within the plot. With all its spotlights on greed run amok, the movie drops a pair of themes that can be synonymous with unbridled capitalism. I guess Niccol didn’t think the average audience—not to leave out ardent Timberlake and Seyfried fans—would be wise to the two pronged attack of “who watches the watchers” and the classic “sins of the father” subtexts. I did, and when done right, it can be rather affecting. Here, for the first one, since the entire populace is under the gun, why later flat out say that no one in the upper reaches of the time-saturated knows what’s been going on and for how long? “This is how it works, and we answer to no one but ourselves.” Upsetting? Sure. Been done before? Yes. Clever when smothered by a gimmick? C’mon.

The second part is so played out, or at least wasn’t given a fresh spin here. What I particularly dislike about this device is that it often excuses the villains’ motives. Well, it does that here with In Time. Some could make the argument that Will’s adversary, Vincent Kartheiser’s time magnate Phillipe Weis playing all innocent at the end of the whole mess could illustrate how the ludicrously rich are ignorant of their own wealth, or at least of its origin. Is this supposed to drum up sympathy for the fallen? Maybe, and if it were in the same vein as the linearity aspect of the story, it might have worked.

Despite all the flourishes, In Time plays out as stock, stale, self-important and more than a bit trippy. There was a germ of a good idea here. It’s too bad Niccol fell back on gimmickry and warhorse plot devices instead. S/F noir this ain’t. It tried hard, and the message wasn’t too on the nose. In Time‘s execution was sorely lacking, resulting in one of the most boring installments of RIORI to date.

Sorry. I really couldn’t make the—wait for it—time for it.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. This is a movie either for the patient or the attention deficient. What it’s not for is a thinking audience, or who aren’t easily moved by a paper thin S/F allegory. Time’s up (couldn’t help it).

Stray Observations…

  • “You want coffee or do you wanna reminisce?” There’s an ad slogan there somewhere.
  • Despite all the nanotech, time exchange, retrograde degradation in this dystopia, we still need pay phones.
  • “The clock is good for no one.”
  • The time jokes got old before the second act ended.
  • “Everyone can’t live forever. Where would we put them?”
  • Where exactly is Sylvia supposed to hide that piece?
  • “We look cute together.”
  • For some inexplicable reason I liked the automobile F/X. Even I doubt my own taste.
  • I’m surprised that the Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run” wasn’t used in the soundtrack. My jokes aren’t for everyone.
  • Ellison co-wrote a draft with Isaac Asimov back in 1977 for a script to an I, Robot movie adaptation that never saw the light of day. Just sayin’.

Next Installment…

Mel Gibson purposely rams his fist up The Beaver. No, not that kind. You’re a sad, sad perv, you.

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 14: Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” (2009)

Funny People

The Players…

Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann and Eric Bana, with Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Aubrey Plaza and the RZA.

The Story…

When superstar funnyman George Simmons learns he has a life-threatening disease, he slows down and takes stock of his life. Sure, all his movie success has given him wealth and fame, but at what cost to his health and happiness?

Believing his time is short, George decides to get back to the source: he wants to get out on the road again, do stand-up. Recapture the fun again, before it’s too late. But, well, its been a while since he had to sing for his supper. George could use some help to get back into the groove. He needs a wingman, a personal, personal assistant. Say maybe some up-and-coming comic, all fresh-faced with some raw talent. Somebody like George once was back in the day.

Since the clock is winding down, George instead settles with Ira. Sh*t, it wasn’t like the poor schlub was going anywhere to begin with.


The Rant…

Tried my hand at stand-up comedy once. Never really thought I was funny in the vein of, say, George Carlin or Bill Hicks, but I remembered my younger days whiling away my lonesome Saturday nights watching Fox’s Comic Strip Live and laughing myself silly as those guys and gals tore up the midnight screen with their stories and one-liners. Hey, I could do that!

Right. No, I couldn’t, or was not able to in my neck of the woods. Such simple joys were all I was after, especially since beer and snatch weren’t as easily accessible as Domino’s was come the weekend. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

Was I any good at it? Ah, again: no. I figured my schtick wasn’t the flavor in Columbus, let alone where I lived (which was nowhere near Ohio). To give you a notion—and this isn’t about sour grapes, believe me. Ask my friends—of where I was coming from, my hometown was—still is a chunk of conservative Middle America. I’ve commented here before that Middle America is not a place, but a mindset. And no, I’m not gonna slag on where I was raised and warped. Did that already, and once you hear about it, nod assent, share your story any further analysis is a waste. Because your small town is still going to be small, and likes it that way. Like Lou Reed sang, “No one ever important came from here.”

As a teen, there was no real social scene for me back then. There were high school related things, sure. A minor league baseball team. Even an under-18 dance club that played raver music, replete with glow sticks and a fruit smoothie bar. But that was it. Everything else to do revolved around bar-hopping—taboo for a minor like me anyway—and late nights at diners, with one exchanging places with another and back again every weekend. Boring. Dead. Not wholly awful, but me being a restless teen, I knew there had to be something else. Something really fun to do late at night on a weekend that didn’t involve danger. At least not the physical kind.

In a back-asswards kind of way, that’s how I got onto my Comic Strip Live viewings. Right. Nerdy teen. No place to go. Up late in mom and dad’s basement, Sega Genesis controller all sticky. You need a laugh. What’s on TV? Why, it’s a bevy of stand-ups, men and women from across the country (sometimes even across the globe) of all different stripes telling stories and spouting social commentary and making a huge room of complete strangers piss their pants. Not to mention the new fanboy at home (eeyew). I loved it; I was hooked. From 7th grade to the show’s cancellation in the mid-90s, you’d almost always find yours truly glued to the tube every Saturday night from 11 to midnight with the local Fox affiliate. When it was summertime with no school to worry about I was waving a finger to the Sandman by watching The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson to tide me over till the weekend. And when stand-up specials would pop up occasionally on HBO, I had a fresh, blank VHS at the ready to record George Carlin, Robin Williams and even goofy Gallagher for posterity.

So when I was of the improper age, figuring that I had a few funny things to tell strangers in the dark, I sought out open mikes at local coffee shops. Okay, at the two coffee shops. I never had a problem with public speaking. I always figured I got to be the center of attention, and if I f*cked up, hell just act all silly about it. We all worry about making an ass of ourselves in front of a crowd. It happens sometimes; just roll with it.

I tried to roll with it. You always hear about comics getting heckled. Some (usually drunken) assh*ole yells sh*t out of line at the comic, wrecking his flow and pissing off the audience. I knew about that. I also expected to having folks not getting my stuff, and not getting many, if any laughs. What’s funny to you ain’t necessarily funny to others, smashed watermelons or no.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the indifference.

I was young, but my concerns were decidedly not on the buffet for the gentry. Lambasting 90s pop culture institutions like the latest music and movies (see a pattern forming?) as well as how hard—honestly hard—it is to get with, deal with the opposite sex was not what your typical cafe crowd wanted to hear from some loudmouth 18-year old. Comparing sexual conquests of Sean Connery versus Roger Moore in the 007 movies wasn’t much of hit. My bits went sh*t over shovel, but weren’t regarded with heckles or no laughter. The crowd couldn’t be bothered with such interactions. They were too busy chatting with each other over their drinks to give an ear to my antics. I was an irritant. Granted that this was a cafe, but it was open mike night, and the guy with the bagpipes got a standing O, after all.

That’s not how it went on Comic Strip Live. What happened?

In my wanderings about town, I encountered many, many backwoods people in the heart of urban Pennsylvania. In the A Most Violent Year installment, I spoke of my walkabouts in the less seemly parts of my old stomping grounds. I found regardless of the setting—be it cafes, the aforementioned diners or other public gathering places—the townies were not keen to having feathers they weren’t aware of be ruffled by some jabber jaw kid who watched Jon Stewart and Colin Quinn cut their teeth Saturday night. One too many times. You hear what I’m screaming. Even if you weren’t a comedy wonk like me, but just some schlub living in an uptight, reactionary, conservative town you were quick to learn that spouting your mouth off about issues others would happily ignore would likely get you in line, awaiting the inevitable drubbing.

I understood that old comic axiom: “Timing is everything.” Certain jokes work here, some there. Depends on the audience. It would probably be unwise to crack jokes about type 2 diabetes while performing at Hershey Park. For every season and all that bullish*t. If you’re a comic, or any performer for that matter, you gotta pick your moments. Gauge your audience. And know when it’s time to make a graceful exit.

Which is why indirectly, after my belabored attempts at bein’ a funnyman, the seed was planted why I had to get the f*ck outta dodge.

Comedian Patton Oswalt—a personal fave—put it best with his “Test of the Small Town” bit. It went something like this, more or less verbatim: when you grow up in a nondescript, soulless, boring town you have been given a present from God. And the present is the Test of the Small Town. You pass the test when you go, “I’m leaving before I kill everyone and then myself!” That’s when you pass. You fail when you go, “I’ll git a job at the Citgo and fill m’truck up fer free!” Whoops, you f*cked up.

Wasn’t gonna be me. At the time, but I probably wasn’t aware of it, I was taking Oswalt’s test. By watching comedians and then mimicking their bits, I learned quickly two things (well, one was already quite codified in my teenage mind).

First, watching all those comics from all over hither and yon told me that there was a bigger world than my dot on the map. All sorts of different people came on that stage from all over, telling stories that anyone, on one level or another, could relate to. And laugh about, no matter how weighty the subject. And how they delivered their bits reflected where they came from. New York. LA. Boston. The Midwest. This told me that there was indeed a bigger world beyond my little ville. Populated with people that, hey, I might be able to be down with. Ah, the optimism that only puberty can provide.

Second, I grew up in a staid, narrow town. Maybe on some vestigial level my mucking about with comedy planted the needful seed for me to scurry off down the path. It’s not unlike the virginal would-be starlet fresh off the motor coach from Wichita. Most of us come from nowhere to seek our fortunes elsewhere. Those cats on CSL were just struggling comics, but they came to LA from very elsewhere sometimes for their big TV spot. I saw the salt mine years of Jon Stewart, Jeff Foxworthy, Jeff Dunham (and Peanut), Bill Engvall, Kathleen Madigan, Dom Irrera (whom I met once; nice guy) and Denis Leary on CSL, before they were anybody. They knew they had to travel, to move on to find their muse. That’s the way it is with stand-up. You gotta find the right time.

Again, as they say in comedy, “Timing is everything.” A wisecrack here, a joke there, an anecdote later on, maybe some philosophical musing and/or social commentary. It only works within the proper context, as well as the right environment. Languishing in my old town, with the gift given by both an Oswalt-esque crisis and all those jokesters I caught on CSL, I quickly learned that I had to get out. All this required was my timing.

The right timing.

Sorta like the kind George Simmons once took. His career skyrocketed only after years of digging in the trenches, hitting the road and honing his act. Now he has it all. But all it takes is some bad news at the (im)proper time to make him assess his actual achievements, and perhaps realize that where he came from—where it all began—may have been nowhere, but it was somewhere.

Profound, huh? You get chills…?

America’s number one comic actor George Simmons (Sandler) has it all. Success. Lavish home. Millions in the bank. A lucrative—albeit questionable—motion picture career. Wants for nothing. Except maybe…something. For all his wealth, like many celebs, there’s this feeling of hollowness. Not to mention some other feeling.

His annual physical’s laboratory results have come back, and the news is bleak. George has contracted a rare blood disorder. He has very few options for treatment, let alone looking down avoiding a possible death sentence. To say he is scared and devastated in a disgusting understatement. He returns home to his sumptuous estate and all he sees is, well, nothing. What was all that hard work as a workaday comic a lifetime ago for, only to have…this happen?

Ira Wright (Rogen) is a struggling comic. Struggling mostly due to one glaring problem. Ira ain’t funny. He lacks confidence, timing, decent material and stage presence. But he tries hard. In fact, by his roomies—all successful funnymen, by the way. Some even have contracts—he’s very trying. Despite his minimal talent, Ira is sure that if he keeps plugging, he’ll win over a crowd. But after all the silence and indifference, when will that happen?

One night at an abortive club date, George catches a bit of Ira’s bumbling act. With a furrowed brow, George recognizes something in Ira he once recognized in himself. Do what it takes to be funny and make a bunch of strangers laugh out loud. George recalls, if only vaguely, what it took to make that happen.

George taps Ira. Knowing time is a precious commodity, and being reminded of that thrill he got back in the day, George tasks Ira as his new writer. He figures it’ll be good for the kid. That and George wants to do stand-up again, get back to the source, recapture the buzz again before its too late. He’ll let Ira try out new stuff with him as his mouthpiece. In return for his “services,” Ira has to be George’s valet, life coach and overall flunky for as long as…whatever takes.

Ira is ecstatic. George Simmons! The man is not unlike a god to newb comics. He’s the guy where Ira is now! F*ck George, yeah! I’ll do anything you say!

Could you get in touch with my ex and destroy her happy marriage?

Um, wait. What? Hang on. Like that’s gonna happen…

Funny People is two movies in one. Unlike a double bill at The Comedy Store, this is not a good thing. In fact it’s a disappointing thing.

I rightfully enjoyed Apatow’s first efforts, The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up (and by extension, Superbad). Apatow’s done all right as far as I’m concerned. He was one of the guys I caught on Comic Strip Live back in the day. He had a bit about having a head cold (no, really) that left me in stitches. Who’d be better to write a movie about the ups and downs of comic stardom than a former comic himself? Remember: write what you know.

Apparently what Apatow knows—learned, rather—is that the life of an entertainer has more pitfalls then a southeastern PA freeway come March. Success in this biz is a hard-won ally, and one that could hand you over to the enemy at a moment’s notice. Considering the dire state of affairs regarding Sandler’s current cinematic track record, Funny is both prescient and cautionary. Not to mention makes for great character study.

A few light-years back, I took apart one of Sandler’s dramatic turns in Reign Over Me. The thing sucked on toast, but prior to the nitpicking I spoke about the comedy career arrest in Sandler’s current movie CV. I also spoke of his trademark schtick, what with its screaming, silly voices and mid-70s variety show-like musical numbers. In addition to that, there was an assumed cavalier attitude Sandler might have regarding his fans and/or detractors who see his films: you know what you’re getting into buying a ticket, so take the lumps with the laughs or else.

That being said, is this whole film a self-conscious deconstruction of Sandler’s movie career? If so, it’s a needful thing—especially considering the non-stop backfires of his recent movie output. It’s then remarkable how one can turn a negative into a positive (albeit a small one). When the script for Funny dropped on his desk, Sandler read it, must’ve smirked and decided to give it the ol’ college try. Write what you know? Sandler “wrote” what he acts for Funny. The guy was readily game, and definitely qualified to portray a doosh like George Simmons.

What’s brilliant about Funny is first the very simple plot. It’s the whole mentor/student bent like other movies I’ve tackled here at RIORI, namely Finding Forrester and Wonder Boys. Whereas those tales were sober, heart-warming tales (sort of), Funny comes off as bitter and satirical, not unlike many a real-life comedians’ routines. Since the cast is choking with comic actors and real-life stand-ups to boot, small wonder why characters Ira and George—the proverbial Tom and Huck of the movieare hand in glove for a film like this. There’s a kind balance between schtick and dramatic aspirations at work here. The seamy, struggling world of Funny mirrors perfectly the lifestyle that goes with this kind of gig. Our movie is not supposed to funny, however, what with all its nights in the trenches and possible trappings of fame, it still keeps its humor. A good example in the film as how practicing comedy is at heart an organic thing are the scenes with the Teutonic doctor; it’s a priceless setup as to where comedy comes from. But despite the vital illustrations of funniness with scenes like that, prickly is the best overall way to describe the aura of this movie’s first act.

More on the final act later.

*cue sinister music*

Sandler didn’t need much motivation to play George. He is George. From his track list of movies that area at best mildly amusing and at worst inane, as well as his straying from the stand-up scene that made him, Sandler/George is an icon to comics and bane to their own careers. In other words, George sold out and it’s getting to him. Even more so that his life may be cut short.

Let’s talk about the acting, shall we? Essentially, our two leads are playing themselves. We get that George is Sandler. It’s nice to see—even in a meta fashion—Sandler’s hard-fought road to success. Sort of. I heard Apatow incorporated a lot of Sandler’s real-life experiences into the script. It shows, especially the scene when George is reliving his past via old video footage of his salad days. It gets lonely at the top later on in life. Doesn’t success do that? Sandler has this resignation hanging on his face, but doubtless it’s attached to Geroge’s circumstances. It’s his, winking and nodding at: yes, this is my life, my fame, my prison. How he delivers George, one gets the (correct) impression that Sandler improvised most of his lines, for good or for ill. I mean, the guy’s been there. Is there. Who’s better than him muckraking? I don’t think Sandler has but a wink in his eye as to how his career’s turned out, but his alter-ego does, and perhaps Sandler’s doing some vicarious therapy.

Right. I delve too deep. Shutting up and moving on.

After George receives his bad news, he quiets down, becomes reflective as anyone facing such a fate would. In the first half-hour of Funny Sandler exhibits more pathos than in the two-plus decades Reign Over Me sprawled over. He’s funny in fits and starts, and most of it is cutting, sardonic and plainly dark. Not the usual flavor in Sandler’s Columbus. His bread and butter is put to good tongue-in-cheek use as against character here. Like I said, maybe here was a opportunity for the guy to excise his demons, get some sh*t off his chest and let us have a laugh on him rather than with him. A nice departure, actually. I like a lower key Sandler here, and maybe a few of his diehards could make room for this bit also. This movie illustrates that Sandler can actually act. If only within the proper context. This movie does what Spanglish and Reign didn’t: give Sandler room. Comedians often do well in dramatic roles (e.g.: Jim Carrey, Richard Pryor, Jamie Foxx, etc) and seldom the other way around. Here Sandler got the ideal role: autobio comedy kinda drama. Sorry, it was the best way I could phrase it. Fine. You try.

I like low-key Rogen, too. Rogen here as Ira is just as childish as ever, not to worry. His stock in trade is playing a schlumpy quip machine ever put upon by the troubles he creates for himself. That and a lot of yelling. Here in Funny, Rogen also plays against type and his Ira is a lot more down that his usual fits of dick jokes and stammering like Curly on crack. Instead he is the terminal straight man. His childishness here is channeled into the mold of a nervous, under confident, neophyte comic that doesn’t have a leg to stand on. His act is lame. He has no timing. He’s like a kid who finds a lump of coal in the proverbial stocking. He needs a hug. Rogen finally has a role that reflects what America sees in him. It’s his most human role, not unlike his benefactor’s. Gone is Officer Michaels and Dale Denton. Enter Ira. Got a funny feeling here that Rogen is also channeling the years he grappled with a comedy writer. Like I said, many times over, timing is everything. Maybe with Funny, it was Rogen’s turn to pull back the curtain. What we see is rather endearing, and a character that we as an audience can sincerely get behind.

Okay. Now shut it about my rooting around. There’ll be a payoff.

What about the technical stuff? Good question. Apatow is generally a sharp filmmaker. He drops hints and allusions to subtly pair drama with the giggles and poop jokes. Funny is no different. There’s oddly a lot of good camera work. Why oddly? Because a bittersweet comedy in his vein is often in your face, if not outright brusque. Almost everything front and center. I couldn’t help but notice that for the majority of the shots—save close-ups—every scene was framed slightly left of center. Or right. Whatever. Even the scenes that involve intimate conversations or moments of contemplation (yes, there were a few in this Apatow flick), next to nothing was framed center stage. Unless it was significant; i.e.: the stand-up scenes. Little doubt to leave in the mind what our director was trying to convey here. All the world’s a stage and whatnot. If this show’s about stand-up, give the comics some, y’know. And Funny is very good at illustrating the growth of a comic. All this cinematography did a good job of keeping us centered against the looming twin shadows of death and failure. Kinda like that old Shakepearean trick…you’ve heard it already, right.

Apatow is also skilled with splicing drama along comic lines. Both Virgin and Up had heartfelt storytelling underpinning the raunch. It helps that the weighty matters are about the mundane sh*t we may all have to deal with in life. Like Carlin said, “Everything we share, but never talk about is funny.” Very sage. Apatow took this philosophy to heart when making his movies. For every booger joke, his sh*t illustrates we all pick ’em. There ain’t much subtlety in most of his execution, but then again neither is being caught digging for that gold nugget. Those proverbial nuggets are what makes his drama-comedies work so well most of the time. It’s kinda endearing.

One last thing on the technical side: Apatow’s tasteful soundtracks. What with all the 80s cheeze with Virgin and the stroke of genius hiring Loudon Wainwright to cut tracks for Up, a keen application of the right song at the right time isn’t missing here with Funny. There were two scenes that best illustrate said keenness. First was backing the whole face-out-the-limo scene. Backed by James Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind” makes Ira’s reactions seem to remind George the joy of success he’d had one time in the past. Poignant, if only for a flash.

Second was the scene where George was clearing out his garage, choked with movie promos and swag the studios sh*t on him over the years. You can hear Alice In Chains’ “Man In The Box” lulling in the background. Pointed without being all up in yo grill. You’d almost miss it if you weren’t listening (to the soundtrack or my quackings).

So far, so good. Solid story, likable characters (regardless of unfortunate actors), funny and a potential long-range, rewarding story. All that being said, the first half of Funny is a warm, good-natured movie.

Now we have a problem: there is no second act.

Worse: the third act is from some other movie. One I’d dislike. Uh-oh.

Hang on. Backtrack. There is a second act, and it lasts less than ten minutes. It’s just one scene, really.

In any other movie with a similar storyline (dying man seeking redemption), the scene where our protag tries to repair bridges with “the one guy/girl that got away” is de rigeur. It’s a f*cking tradition by this point. George has an emotional moment with his spurned love, Leslie Mann’s Laura, and it’s very sweet. Not quite saccharine—Apatow’s too adroit to leave it so—but also somehow…baiting?

And now we reach the inevitable; here’s the moment when Funny goes careening off the tracks.

I’m really unsure that what happens in the third act was an honest intention in Apatow’s storytelling, or instead some demon muse suggested, “Hey, you got these name stars, a tight plot, this big-ass budget and the audience in your pocket. You’ve done a fine job exorcising Sandler’s demons for the first half of your movie. Let’s use up the remaining time to purge your demons and vicariously tell your ex she kissed the wrong frog and her p*ssy is awash in warts for it! Mwa-ha-ha! Now go forth and bring me the skins of the Olsen twins!!!”

Right. Not sure. Just musin’.

At any rate, after George and Ira reach an understanding about each other’s chosen paths the film should’ve ended. It didn’t. Instead we get another 90 minutes of the two trying to upend Laura’s presently decent relationship in the name of…what? Revenge? A perverted extension of George’s need to mend/burn bridges? Ira trying to…hey, where’d Ira go? Totally unsure. All I got from the final act was a chance to hear Bana speak in his usual Aussie accent. Well, that was amusing, at least.

This whole tryst aim of the movie disrupts—destroys—everything, everything that get set up for the first 90 minutes. Here’s a bit that goes on waaay to long, and has next to no connection with the first half of the movie. I got confused as to where the point of the antagonism lay. If this device was trying to enhance some tension it would’ve worked better edited down and had nothing to do with advancing the ‘A’ plot. This killed the movie’s pacing (uh-oh) as well as all the natural-feeling tension that was established in the first half. In short, this sidestep sucked all the funny building in Funny out of the movie from then on out.

I repeat, Funny is two movies in one. But this ain’t about no double feature at the Cineplex. I mean, after my desultory opening statement to the review part, I enjoyed Funny up until the point of no return. But this movie went on way too long for the worst reason possible: directorial indulgence.

It’s been an accepted fact for decades that certain directors get long-winded, regardless of their résumés. Scorsese does it. Coppola did (still I feel that the unedited version of Apocalypse Now is superior to the original, theatrical cut). Cimino really was. But those dudes carried decades long cachets. Apatow has, what, five directorial credits to his name (or as I like to call it: Marty’s lunch break)? I think it’s a tad too soon for the man to get all gushy here with Funny. Y’know, since his work’s almost legitimatized. Big deal office turn out does not automatically grant one Crooklyn street credit (sorry, best example I could conjure up. I’m like a Replacements’ live show right now). Still, I get the feeling with the last half of Funny, Apatow took his turn pulling a George Simmons within his own film. It would’ve worked if it, well, would’ve worked.

It didn’t. In fact it failed so badly I got so befuddled two-thirds through the movie that not only I had no idea what was going on but forgot about the first chunk of Funny‘s original plot thread. Such a thing might’ve been tolerable if the movie’s throughput remained relevant, consistent and, well, funny. Geroge and Ira’s story are basically sidelined to make room for a f*cking soap opera. The only thing that was remotely amusing about this thread was seeing Bana be way over the top, almost a mirror image of Sandler’s rise to his. Trading one caricature for another isn’t funny. It’s goddam aggravating, like we need training wheels to get the joke. Very un-stand-up. Shame on you, Judd.

What spark had been developing got snuffed out here. This movie should’ve been half as long. Even my endless patience was tested as soon as George and Ira arrived at Laura and Clark’s place. Goddam it. Here we had a chance for a near blemish-free role for Sandler and Apatow just had to revisit his old high school A/V Club one last time. Sh*t. We were on a roll here with Funny, then it got all…unfunny. Not just “not funny.” The audience got catapulted into another theatre entirely. And I don’t care that at the end George alludes to Ira REDACTED. It would’ve been better off that way at the outset. Or at least the first 90 minutes.

I can’t f*cking believe this big-ass disappointment was two-and-a-half hours long. That’s like three hours of Comic Strip Live! Minus the reliable laughs!

That’s if you even use an ELP 8 hour VHS from BASF.

What? Too many acronyms? Is this on?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. It’s a bait-and-switch. Get the hook.

Stray Observations…

  • “Don’t blame me for your p*ssy problems.”
  • No burgeoning comics could ever afford a pad like that. Not feasible.
  • “You ever get tired ’bout talking about your dick?” F*ck FaceBook!
  • I love all the comic posters.
  • “Smart movie.”
  • I hate the LA skyline.
  • “I think I can hear the freeway…”
  • Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart.” It works wonders.
  •  “That’s just fifth grade.”
  • Schwartzman needs a-slappin’.
  • “Are you mad that you died at the end of Die Hard?” “I don’t understand your reference.” You tell ’em, Karl.
  • Marshall Mathers. Closet sage.
  • “You owe me fifty.”
  • Mann is endearingly annoying, like that squeaky girl who’d follow you and your friends around after school and onto the playground. Later in high school, she’s give you a bl*wjob so you’d do her homework. You dig what I’m saying? What do you mean…? Hm. Guess that explains the sores. Anyway, “I like Spider-Man!”
  • “I thought everybody loved you…”
  • Dick move there having Ira telling Laura about George’s REDACTED (God, I love doing that).
  • “Where are the black guys?”
  • Who wants to wager that Apatow is a Gershwin fan? What with Sandler performing and Rogen writing? The analogy sure wasn’t lost on me. Clever.

Next Installment…

Can Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried literally escape their futures In Time?