RIORI Vol 3, Installment 71: Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” (2005)



The Players…

Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Clarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler, with Mathieu Amalric, Alylet Zurer, Michael Lonsdale and Lynn Cohen.


The Story…

The Olympics are supposed to be a time of healthy competition amonst nations, highlighting athletic prowess and cultural pride. It’s a show of goodwill amongst nations, to come together and cheer for favorite sons and daughters. It’s supposed to be almost familial, not political.

Supposed to be.

So when Palestinian terrorists hold hostage and ultimately kill a group of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the tragedy prompts the Mossad to track down the assassins and deliver justice.

Whoever wins this race will not get a medal.


The Rant…

Steven Spielberg. One of the most popular, esteemed directors in the history of American cinema. Heck, maybe the most popular across the globe. Man’s had more movie hits than Jordan’s had slam dunks. His style of storytelling is so wide-eyed and visceral audiences can’t help but be drawn into his many, many celluloid worlds. He’s done it all: suspense, sci-fi, comedy, drama, fantasy, everything save porn (and he probably has a project about that in the works. Historical drama, of course. With squeegees).

For a lot of you I’m willing to wager that Spielberg’s films taught you to love the movies. Sure did for me, if only for the fact the first flick I saw in a for-real theater was a Spielberg flick. I was six years old and properly damaged in head so that now you’re reading this snarky blog. Pros and cons abound.

I was six, knew nothing about going to the movies, simply because I had yet to go to a damned theatre. I was six, couldn’t reach the pedals. That’s what grown-ups are for, and my parents got hip to this new, big deal movie in theaters. They friends caught it, raved and insisted they catch it, too. This is how legacies are created.

For reasons lost to a spotty memory, mom and dad got the idea to bring me along to see this blockbuster. Me. Dopey, six-year old, when’s the new Lego catalog coming out me? Damn. This…this was something. My folks never invited my booger-eating butt out with them for grown up things. At least fun things. Meet The Teacher night didn’t count. Even being a mere stripling, my gut new this was something. Something BIG. I mean forget the babysitter big, li’l me was going out for a night on the town with mom and dad to see a MOVIE. In a THEATRE. With POPCORN and SODAS you drank from a wheelbarrow and above all else, staying up PAST MY BEDTIME (okay, it was a weekend, but still). I didn’t know about beer and sex yet, so this whole package was epic. In some ways, a bigger deal than booze and p*ssy, and a lot less messy, barring the cinema floor.

An aside: What the hell is up with that? You’ve waded through it every premier night. Is it Coke mixed with discarded Gummi Bears dappled with Velcro? Probably closer to the truth than comfort allows. Yick.

Anyway, speaking of a babysitter, didn’t need one that night. At least didn’t. My kid sisters were waylaid for the evening by the teen up the street. Big bro was gonna paint the town red. That’s what it felt like anyway. As a little kid I had no concept of what a big night out was, only that when the sitter was called on to watch my little sisters and “big” me while mom and dad trotted off into the night a came home super late (almost 9:30), something special went down when that front door closed shut. Even if it was merely for a new movie. An R-rated movie probably, so no kids. Sigh.

Keeping that in mind, the ‘rents invited me to see a PG movie. Okay for kids, right? So long the P’s provided proper G, all would be okay (y’know, like intense scenes that reflexively make go grab mom’s arm). That was my folks’ logic it seemed. Besides, this film got rave reviews, and a Spielberg movie to boot!

Um, who?

I was six, remind you. The peak of visual entertainment for me were Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends and the original Looney Tunes on the Bugs And Daffy Show that rounded out Saturday morning TV programming. I loved Chuck “How The Grinch Stole Christmas/Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote” Jones. Guess that showed a modicum of taste.  No clue what that name meant (please refer to the Sahara installment to better illustrate my cinematic ignorance). We didn’t own a VCR yet. Early 80s and such. The movies were the big time, and that being said Mom and Dad actually dressed up for this event. And me too. It would’ve been considered business casual nowadays, but being six doffed with a college prof turtleneck and khakis around my waist…hell, might as well have been a tux. To this day, even though I don’t get dressed up for it, going to catch a movie in a theatre is alwaysspecial event for me. It ain’t the Oscars red carpet, true, but I have access to a monster pouch of Twizzlers and the Afflecks do not. I win, always.

The place is lost on me, but I recall my parents taking me out to eat before the show. At a real restaurant. With menus! I was used to the occasional jaunt to McDonald’s (especially when they were giving away dinky Lego sets with the Happy Meals. Good times, good times), but this was another new experience. Namely,we had to wait for our food, at least longer that 30 seconds. Another experience of the kind of grown-up fun I was missing simply by being too short. Now life was happening.

We ate and left for the mall. That’s where the cineplex was. Like a dozen theaters. Big deal hub for a movie hungry crowd. To me it was like Grand Central, so many busy lines and crowds of people. It was the weekend, mind you. Not much has changed in the past 30-plus years when it came to venturing out to cinemaland on a Friday. Then I clung to my mom, praying I didn’t get lost, stomped on or stolen away to wherever kids are sentenced when they stay up past their bedtime, big boy khakis or no.

Never fear. The big people knew the way. They paid for the tickets and the popcorn (I got a f*cking bale of the stuff, bucket bigger than my pre-puber old head. Like I said, some things haven’t changed much), so they had the kings to the kingdom. They found seats. The theater was packed to the gunwales with eager cinemaphiles. Never I had seen so many people crammed into a single room, and the room itself was miles wide. It was like being in a hangar, minus the planes. Felt like thousands of people were attendant, but I was a kid. EVERYTHING in the place felt huge and out of proportion. Especially that screen. That big, big screen. We had a modest 24 inch set at home. Here, in the gloaming, amongst all the other grown-ups out “late” on a Friday, that massive screen was the Monolith and I was a mere, scrabbling chimp. A big deal.

I’ll cut to the chase. The lights went low, the previews played (probably a simple three, rather than the present half-hour plus parade these days, with NO commercials), and the declaration that as the letters encircled an image of Earth, Universal presented the movie. Funny what sticks.

I felt a palpable hush, an electric feeling of anticipation. I knew I had one, turtleneck vibrating. I was wedged between mom and dad, mutual easy access for an arm to cling to. This was PG territory, mind you. The big leagues. And big it was. The show began, the title faded into view and I strapped in.

It was called ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.

What the hell was an “extra-terrestrial?” I was intrigued. And well-rewarded for my interest.

The rest is mystery. Welcome to RIORI.

Another aside: I feel it necessary to say the next film I caught that year in a for-real theatre (I recall it being a birthday thing) was Star Wars: A New Hope in re-release. Doubtless whetting fans appetites for Return Of The Jedi coming soon to a theatre near me. To which I felt after seeing Lucas’ space epic that I needed, neededMillennium Falcon. Alas, too short. Couldn’t reach the pedals or synch the hyperdrive. Probably woulda crashed into a moon anyway. Nuts.

So yeah, my first intro to Spielberg was my first film seen in a theatre. Not a bad way to start, and it probably explains a lot. Like this bilious blog you dolts keep on visiting. Thanks, BTW.

It’s understood that Spielberg is one of the most esteemed, popular and vital directors in film history. That goes without saying. And of course his ET properly tampered with my mind when it came to watching movies. I say tampered because the guy’s talent sometimes overrides common sense.

An example? For reasons only know to the cinema gods, I got wrapped up one summer as a teen with his Jaws. Watched it everyday, alternately enthralled and freaked out. It was almost an every afternoon ritual for me to watch Robert Shaw get chomped in two. At my grandparents’ summer place. On Fire Island. A postage stamp of a summer ville bookended by the Atlantic and the Great South Bay. Water on both sides. I steered clear of the beach and watched it over and over. I was a doofus.

Another example? This not nearly as dopey, but the Spielberg touch gave up the whammy again. I’ve spoke of this here before, but I feel it bears repeating.

Dateline: late summer, 1998. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is making the cinematic rounds, and gobbling up both critical praise and oodles of tickets at the box office. Hype could not be ignored, so my father and I caught it.

We indeed caught something.

Mom came home from work and saw us, post-viewing, chain-smoking on the porch. She asked how our day out was. We said it was good. She asked how the movie was. We said it was good. We kept smoking. She politely shrugged, went inside and let us be.

A more telling aspect of Spielberg’s light touch was when dad and I were in the theatre. The opening scene. The storming of Normandy. Bullets and screaming and amputees and blood and screaming. When Tom Hanks’ Capt Miller makes it to the beachhead and alternates between commanding his troops and relaying what the f*ck’s happening with the comm officer, when he sees the comm no longer has a face, me at 22 years old, reached over and clasped my dad’s hand. Hard. He squeezed back. Hard.

Good work, Steve. Good work.

*pant*

Let me reel it in now. Dad quit smoking. I go through a lighter a day. Damn you, Spielberg.

*sigh”

But after all my gushing, not all of Speilberg’s movies have been so compelling. By compelling I mean good. He’s had a few duds, mind you. Either outright lame-brained or stalled at the gates duds. To paraphrase Mick, even Jesus had his moment of doubt and pain. Which is why I called you all here today, and I ain’t talkin’ old time religion. Please adjust your turtlenecks.

Steve may have a golden touch, but you really can’t be regarded as a great director without having laid a few turds in your punchbowl. For every Vertigo, Hitchcock cut a Family Plot. For every Harold And Maude, Ashby cut an 8 Million Ways To Die. For every Paths Of Glory, Kubrick cut a Killer’s Kiss (betcha never heard of that one let alone saw it. Don’t) It’s the old truth: how can you gage what’s great if you have nothing bad to measure it against? You need a Vanilla Coke to chase that Crystal Pepsi.

Spielberg has had a few missteps. His proper cinematic debut was the loud, goofy and overly offbeat Sugarland Express. He followed with his breakout, the first blockbuster Jaws with the wondrous, engaging sci-fi Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (the best The Day The Earth Stood Still rip-off ever) with the, um, loud, goofy and overly offbeat comedy dreck 1941. Most of his stuff in the late-80s came across as stiff or underdeveloped, but not without ambition. The Color Purple, Empire Of The Sun (which gave the world Christian Bale), even the remake of the Spencer Tracy vehicle A Guy Named JoeAlways had their merits, but without the verve Spielberg has been known for. Resting on laurels?

Perhaps, but there have been stone cold duds in his CV. Hook springs immediately to mind. The Lost World is another stillborn. The Terminal confused audiences (more on that later, like next installment). What he was aiming at with Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull and The BFG approached a retreat to six-year old kiddie fare wearing khakis.

*wink*

However, the missteps sometimes take time to sink in as decent films in the end run. Cinematic history regards Empire Of The Sun as a dry run for stuff like Schindler’s List and especially (you guessed it) Saving Private RyanThe Color Purple addresses lesbian love, albeit in a very PG-13 way. In the 80s. That counts for something I feel. And War Horse brought his fascination with military history full circle, like saying: “Hey. Important sh*t happened prior to my birth!” Then enter Lincoln.

The point I’m getting at (and I do have one) is that there might be a difference between bearing the mantle of one of the world’s greatest directors gauged against his failings. Here it’s not the “good vs bad” argument. It’s the influence against the expectation here. I equate this to an interview with writer Joseph Heller, author of the famed and seminal Catch-22. Something about him being accused of not writing anything else as good as 22.

His candid response? “That might be true, but nobody else has either.”

So go watch Empire Of The Sun. Maybe again. Back to China in the 40s and beyond.

Today, Germany in the 70s beckons.

So stay up late, clean the gunk off the microscope lens and put on your turtleneck…


A terrifying, despicable thing went down in Munich, 1972’s host city of the Summer Olympics. An act of terrorism. An act political reaction. An act of murder. Murders.

The Olympics are supposed to be a time of countries to hang up their differences, keep the sabers sheathed and work it out on the battlefield of athletic competition. It’s not supposed to political, at least not overtly.

A cadre of Palestinian terrorists feel otherwise, and in the dead of night break into the Olympic Village and take the Israeli track team hostage, demanding safe passage home as well making a statement to the world that Palestine wants its independence from Israel. So much for athletics over differences.

The camera crews are at the ready, the whole world is watching, and of course nothing goes well. The whole Israeli team is slaughtered. The ones who pulled the triggers escape. And leaves a mess of red tape interwoven an international crime to be solved.

Not solved. Avenged.

Enter lowly Mossad desk jockey Avram Kaufmann (Bana). A lifetime ago in his career he was a soldier, a field officer, the man with connections. Now, quaint domesticity, his expectant wife and a safe, albeit boring job. Life could be nothing simpler.

Then the Munich massacre. Enter Ephraim (Rush), the man with the plan.

You see, Avner has that certain something—namely being raised in Germany—which may loan some cultural insight as to how in the world did what happened happened. These terrorists weren’t acting independently you see. They were funded. About a dozen high-end Palestinian sympathizers funded this hit, and they need to be investigated, sought out and be brought to justice.

Wait, that’s not correct. They need to be executed.

This is not a mission of uncovering an international crime ring. Ephraim puts it plain to Avner, his chosen angel.

This is about revenge…


Munich was not Spielberg’s first foray into historical fiction. Well all know about Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan (which indeed was inspired by a true WW2 story) and maybe Empire Of The Sun. All great films via Spielberg’s lens. However Munich was the overtly dark historical fictions I’ve ever seen by the man. It was so intense, and beyond the actual investigation tactics and, well, murder tactics. Munich has got an equal amount of intrigue balanced by a lot of graphic gunfire and explosions. In some way, this stuff came across as more dire circumstances than storming the beaches of Normandy or a no exit train ride to Auschwitz. At least as Spielberg spun it.

I’m not downplaying what the man brought to film with above two. It’s just that Munich is a different beast. It’s ugly. I mean need a chemical shower ugly. List and Ryan had an element of hope attatched to them. Munich is as cynical as…well, me. And even I was disturbed. I mean, I never killed anyone in the name of vengeance, but after watching Munich I could sympathize.

Does that make me a bad person (beyond my bleak worldview)? I don’t think so. Munich hits you on a gut level, blurs the corners between good and bad and eventually throws the whole tale into the confusing, emotional Cuisinart. It gets jarring, but feels so pure you can’t help but not press pause even if to take a leak. Okay, admittedly I had to pee a few times. A two and a half hour viewing warrants that; I’m only human. Beer does that, but I felt a bit guilty letting this film wait for me. Munich waited for no one. And especially not my distended bladder.

Sorry. I was saying:

I’ve noticed a different aesthetic in his films he takes an emotional, personal, almost gritty stance then when he’s just having fun. The guy has a signature with “looking at things” with either awe, disgust and/or terror. It’s all about drawing you in and digest what’s going down. That being said it may go without saying: Jaws was fun to watch in a terrifying sense. Close Encounters was fun to watch in a mindbending sense. Raiders was fun to watch in a fun sense. Those stories invites empathy with the characters. But when the man ain’t screwing around he throws down the gauntlet. Mentioned before his historical fictions don’t mess around, but there’s always a glimmer of hope. Munich espouses no hope, and with all the engaging spygame, I think I know why.

Munich was too close to home, even if you weren’t extant in 1972. However I’m willing to wager you were alive in September, 2001.

Munich—couched in historical fiction—was the man’s (belated one may claim) 9/11 response. The film was one of the most telling, brilliant metaphor of the tragedy I’ve ever seen, on film or otherwise. Like I said, it blurs the corners. Over the course of 2-plus hours, the spygame goes from straight ahead to who are really the killers? The terrorists: are they the financiers of the slaughter? Or are they a reason for a crew of reactionary Israeli Jews creating elaborate hits to also make a political statement? The deeper you play, the more muddled the rules become. And at either end, it’s the dealer who walks away with the full deck. I got the chilling feeling watching Munich that its message (if there really was one) here lies within this question: “Who are the real terrorists?” The invaders or the invaded? Depends on the response/point of view. Like I said, an ugly-feeling notion, but he’s skilled at making you look at things.

Munich does feel like Spielberg, though. It’s a good thing here. It’s dark, cynical, deliberate and unnerving. Also good things (Always vs Raiders, remember?). It’s time then to chat about the technical things. One cannot have a melodrama of harrowing violence and a progressive examination of the futility of man without some flair. Despite Munich being a very un-Spielberg film at first watch, there are his fingerprints all over the movie. Duh, it still is his movie. Muted, but still.

Munich illustrates how the real spygame gets played. This ain’t no 007. Staging hits on the politically guilty is clumsy, grimy and messy most of the time being a slave to the watch. Bond may have been suave, and have the cool tech courtesy of Q getting his back, but Avner’s mission failed to have any Alfa Romeo ejection seat at the ready. As the movie moved on, every hit became less and less certain of “success.” More patchwork, damage control. Maverick. The crew getting more and more frantic, desperate. Almost all of Israeli nationalism on their sleep-dep shoulders. That aspect sorta had a classic spaghetti western feel; revenge, grease wheels for intel thudded against the wall, a motley crew of raw gunslingers, etc. It later feels like a dupe. Traditional Spielberg offbeat heroes against odds unsurmountable. That much is true, but foibles, mission and the aforementioned makes for some gripping tension.

Actually, smart tension may be a better phrase. Nothing here is flashy, like a la Bond again. No. It’s not visceral, either, though it may feel that way while watching. Here you can see what’s coming, but you don’t. There’s this edge. It’s the bleeding edge at the aforementioned blurry corners that bear investigation. We’ve learned over the course of the second act of the movie that Avner and co’s mission is a desperate one, but it might be a futile one. Sure, we know the terrorists are gonna get theirs’, but how about getting there? Everything is frail, fragile and could go off pop at any minute. It was made clear at the outset Ephriam dictated to Avner that he his on his own, and the Mossad knows nothing about Kaufmann, which makes his unique skills so viable. All are working in the shadows, and the shadows permits some mental downtime to consider…what? Who’s really the “bad guys?” Who’s the “avenging angels” of Israel (oh, yeah. For those non-partisan athletes who paid the ultimate cost)? Whose colluding with a very questionable informant giving up the intel for the next hit? Felt like a football’s field’s length away from Bond to me. Again, ugly and brilliant.

A great deal of this Spielbergian struggling empathy is channelled by our reluctant protag Avner. I’ll be the first guy in line to draw lots against Bana’s beheading, but after watching Munich, I quaver. Simply because I appreciate his steady, anti-slow descent invites him realizing anew a sense of purpose, if only his need to douse others’ sense of purpose, with booby-trapped phones and colluding with open secret crime families that market information. It’s established we don’t know who’s who, but Bana’s grim, renewed enthusiasm for being in the field again, fighting for Israel—his spiritual home—he begins to “enjoy” his job. It’s a fall from grace, and a grace from nothing else but equipped by a parachute of civic duty. And isn’t that what terrorists feel on the job? Yet again, ugly. Good work here, Dr Banner.

Munich is a spartan film, relentless in its self-examination yet we still never gauge who is who against what conflict. The whole nasty matter of the Israel olympians getting off is nothing more than an excuse to one-up one government against another claiming who has the bigger balls. Like what Israel claimed to Palestine here. Or what the US waggled to Iraq. Or maybe Iran. Maybe the Rothchilds. We all just don’t know, but there’s a “cause” out there we must fight for!

Finally, Munich is a film with many different shades, ultimately descending into charcoal. It’s very cynical, which attached to Spielberg might’ve led to its tepid response. Not to mention the insidious “terrorist sympathy.” Such stuff would’ve gotten the man on the blacklist back in the 50s. Fortunately today we only have to worry about the Tomatometer. Its shades makes one slowly scratch their head and maybe, just maybe peel away some scales. That might sound a big grand (and perhaps a bit sympathetic to the “other”), but the message squeaked through despite all the sociopolitical debris.

That is if you put aside this was a Spielberg film with no remorse as well as precious little hope.

It was satisfying, though. For all the post-viewing pondering.

So. To lighten things up, who’s ready for ET-X?

No? Okay. So will Tom Hanks work then?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a tough watch, but ultimately rewarding, Unlike other Spielberg’s “friendlier” flicks, you best watch this one by yourself, then come to your own reactionary conclusions. Go look in the mirror afterwards, then drain that lizard.


Stray Observations…

  • “I have the world’s most boring job.”
  • The period fashions (and haircuts) here are great. Not flashy, which is probably why the Academy snubbed that. Oscar likes shiny.
  • And that’s how you uncork a bottle.
  • “I’m proud of what you’re doing.” “You don’t know what I’m doing.”
  • Stalking terrorists is a risky business. Right…everyone?
  • “Everybody works for someone.”
  • Al Green makes everything okay.
  • You ever notice—barring the title card—almost all his movies never have any opening credits? Why is that? There must be a reason; I’m curious.
  • “It costs dearly, but home always does.”
  • “There is no medal or anything?”

Next Installment…

Part 2 of a 2 part study examining Spielberg’s missteps: Tom Hanks can’t fly home to his native land (since it don’t exist no more). Now he’s stuck on a layover from hell, his new home being The Terminal. Could be worse. He’s got Catherine Zeta-Jones to keep him company. We should all be so waylaid.


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.

*kick*


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?