RIORI Vol 3, Installment 89: Steve Pink’s “Accepted” (2006)



The Players…

Justin Long, Jonah Hill, Columbus Short, Maria Thayer, Blake Lively, Adam Herschman and Lewis Black, with Anthony Heald, Travis Van Winkle, Mark Derwin, Ann Cusack and Hannah Marks.


The Story…

Graduating high school senior Bartleby is blithely confident he’s gonna get into college. If not the one of choice than surely one of his backups. He’s sure of it. His folks are hoping on it. His little sis is doubtful of it.

Big ups to sis. Even his backup, backup schools said no thanks. According to his mom and dad if Bartleby doesn’t get his rear in gear his future is in beyond doubt. Hello minimum wage job at the Costco.

Not having any of that, Bartleby cooks up a scheme: invent his own college! All he needs are the right papers.

And curriculum.

And campus.

And mascot.

And you get the idea.


The Rant…

Getting into the college of your choice is hard.

Wait. No it’s not. Not anymore. At least not in the conventional way. Listen.

Hold it, I know I’ve regaled you here at RIORI about my collegiate misadventures. Not gonna do that this time out. Well, not much.

As you know, dear reader that I am a cook. I went through culinary school, yeah, but before these dark days I studied and eventually graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in English. Actually, the mouthful on the CV was a Bachelors’ in English & Textual Studies with a focus on Continental Philosophy, minoring in Secondary Education and Creative Writing. Looks good on a résumé, until you have to explain to the interviewer what the whole wad meant. I then went so far as pursuing a Masters’ in Secondary English Education. Needless to say things didn’t pan out. How do you want your steak?

Now. Let’s set the wayback machine to, oh, 100 years ago. Back then, only the well-heeled could afford to send their spawn to college. It was as prestigious as it was expensive. Graduate and head out into the working world and said world was your oyster. Even more so if it was a “name school.” You’d have it made, and make your folks would be proud. Return on investment.

Post WW2, with America’s expanding middle class, average families could better afford their kiddies the opportunities Mom and Dad wanted at their age. It grew easier to find the college of your choice: the GI bill, scholarships (both academic and athletic. Sometimes both), student loan programs, all sorts of gateways to golden educations that would demand careers.

Then came the 60s, the Baby Boomers. Them and their weed and Grateful Dead LPs and vainglorious notions of shaping the future. Getting into college became mainstream. The workforce and the armed forces were no longer the only places to go post-high school (especially when the draft came calling. Saint Stephen with his rose and all). The skies were as high as they were. Opportunity would come knocking with a degree. A world in the making for the Boomers and later their privileged progeny. Right?

Um. I smell grease.

Enter Gen X. College was not an option. It was a directive. The factories and trolling for unexploded ordinances in some rice pattie Dad defended were for the rabble. You are going to college. Why? Good job, steering clear of time clocks and twitchy napalm. We, the parents, are going to be either bled dry or horns-waggled by the nice lady at the student loan citadel. Anything, anything but “do you want fries with that?”.

At the butt-end of the 20th Century, getting into college was no longer precious. It was ironclad; high school grads would go to college, or else. No longer an overt privilege. Dad would call it marching orders, waving a stump he put to best use at the now closed John Deere factory. We saved up for years to have you get to college, against the odds of risking another pattie and having to keep up with the Jones. And the Smiths. Maybe the Millers, too. You call this a report card? How the hell could you flunk lunch? Let’s hope the boards overlook that. And stay away from that manure spreader.

Don’t get stumped (no apologies there). Getting into college these days can be a real boondoggle. Lots of choices, lots of reasons, lots and lots of paperwork. Forget earning the golden ticket to the ideal job. Simply getting accepted is a real job. A chore. And don’t think the Millenials have it any easier. F*cking FaceBook posts have merit now, even if they only consist of videos of cute cats robbing banks, anime style. It went from once tricky and for the rich to the average getting tricky, if not tricked. My folks recently covered my student loan debt. I graduated with that long-winded shingle decades ago. The bill was paid in full in my early 40s, me now as a divorcee, single dad and a lot of cool recipes. None of them concocted based on the musings of Sartre.

I view it this way: back in the day, college was for the privileged, therefore a degree earned was not just accreditation, but esteemed in select, special circles. By mid-century, college screamed opportunity for every young adult! A good job awaits, not the sh*thole GI Dad had to endure at that age. Go get ’em, kid!

Into the 1980s, where college was de riguer for any high school grad and post-grad it was out into the working world and, well, so what? You went to college? And made it through? Fine. What else can you offer?

By the turn of the 21st Century—say, 100 years after the Armistice, with all yer silly iPhones, Nintendo Switches and a sh*tty grasp on proper grammar—you’ve been to college, right? Okay. So what? Where?

Name recognition. Branding. What kind of product are you? That’s not such a new worldview; it goes back aways. You want to be a lawyer? You attend Yale. You want to be an atomic physicist? You attend MIT. You want to be the next Yo Yo Ma? You lug your battered cello to Juilliard. You want to be a cook? You attend Syracuse University and graduate with a Bachelors’ in English & Textual Studies with a focus on Continental Philosophy, minoring in Secondary Education and Creative Writing. You want your steak how? Go Gen X!

Let’s face facts here. Finishing college lost its spark during the Clinton years. Getting accepted somewhere was no longer significant. Earning a sheepskin was akin to having a valid drivers’ license. You drove here so you’re hired. Get this validated. No, the other bit.

Here’s the real truth about college ultimately teaches you. I learned this from a nice girl I dated at SU. She was so nice I had a hard time absorbing her brutal, cynical truth. That being claimed, she had a bruh crush on Leo DiCaprio and spend more time analyzing Titanic than Cameron did post-production. She was a stitch.

She told me that the only thing college really teaches you is how to work a system. You give them what they want, they’ll give you what you want. It’s a business.

My scales fell. I understood she was cute, but also right. And slyly devious as well as practical. And I slept with her. I knew everything then. I was king of the world!

*klonk klonk klonk*

Needed that, thanks.

Wrapping up here before wrapping up later, college is a system to work, a game. A gamble. Getting in somewhere is a fun nightmare. Fun because you are an active subject in your own vetting process. A nightmare because you have a weak flashlight. Before I settled on SU I had to visit a lot of other prospects. There’s a feel to each and every school, and when you feel the right feel you apply.

That’s it. It’s how it’s been for the past quarter century. You find a home away from home. You’re not going to be denied an education; that’s the business before the business. It’s not as if you have a question for your prof pertinent to your midterm that they’re not gonna answer. What’s that? No. You’re going to have to go to Harvard to get that info. Hand in your blue book.

Getting an education at college is the program, the end run. You’re going to learn something. These days it’s the campus, the environment, the feel of the school that makes you want to sign on. That’s key, and f*ck all to my blustering earlier. Still think it’s relevant, if only as a slog to getting into college, but at the end of the day as a prospective college student you ultimately gotta find your niche. A school where you feel you belong.

Once in, limping through your chosen major (mine: waffles and Melville), you pick and choose your personal needs, both in academia and finding your Mark (refer to the Zack And Miri Make A Porno installment. Wear a raincoat). You find your wants over your scholastic needs a lot, be it discovering indie rock, burning, the Greek System, beer bongs, basketball games and/or a creative writing workshop dissecting the works of Sylvia Plath (Cliff Note: she was only great cuz she couldn’t figure out the new oven).

As of this installment, getting into college is simple (if you’re rich, white and male…or poor, black and not male). Smile and nod, and keep in the back of your mind all the well-to-do tags stapled to your nuts back in 1918 after thwarting the Hun and your folks investing in Mr Astor’s furrier enterprise. May seem like ancient junk now, especially facing the impulse to find a college that’s you. Where you can get the best education focusing on your skills and needs. Connect with the right friends that both support/inspire you and/or craft a fake ID before Friday night. Maybe even taken under the wing of an esteemed, ancient and most likely boozy prof exposing you to the hidden social commentary in Raymond Carver’s works as well with Garbage Pail Kids trading cards. Choose that. Go learn.

Smart move. What’s yours now? Want fries/Proust with that?

I was accepted at SU. I learned a lot, both academic and social. I found my niche.

Twenty years on I sear duck breast for $12 an hour and am not at all remotely full of regret or bitter…


College is the melted cheese that covers up all the crap you had to endure those lame four years in high school. This is Bartleby “B” Gaines’ (Long) devil-may-care attitude come graduation. College acceptance? Easy. His apps went out, cluttered with average grades, no unnecessary extracurricular activities, precious few blemishes on his non-existant permanent record and no parking tickets in the student lot on Mondays. Getting accepted should be a breeze.

The only breeze blowing is over the empty mailbox, too weak to raise the red plastic flag. Even B’s backup backup school passes him over. And his parents are mad.

Since no school wants B, he concocts a wild idea. College is all about making yourself, right? Then why not create a college that would accept a mediocre grad like himself? All he needs is some hacked acceptance letter to show his dismayed folks!

“The South Harmon Institute of Technology?”

It fits. He’s up sh*t’s creek anyway. But a letter ain’t enough. B recruits his best bud Schrader (Hill) to snoop around and create a bogus website, find a campus, a student body, a skater half-pipe, the usual to keep this ruse alive and kicking. Thus SH*T is born. All will be well.

Until jillions of washouts from other colleges become barbarians at the gates demanding degrees.

What to do? SH*T has become more than a ruse. It’s fast becoming a sh*tstorm. Now what?

Simple. Launch motorcycle stunts into the student pool with a hella pyrotechnics.

Ain’t “college” fun?


I liked this, heaven help me. And not just based on my broken-wing concept of college life. Well maybe a bit.

I know I’m showing my cards here, but after weeks of shaking my head at my viewing selections I need some comfort food. Namely, a flick devoid of artistic pretensions. Any pretensions really. With Accepted, it made for some decent yuk-yuks. Even if it’s under your pillow or a latent snort when you’re taking a leak. You get where I’m coming from. I hope.

Accepted is a classic comic example of “just go with it.” There are no twists, no “serious” ones you couldn’t’ve predicted. Carbon copy characters/stereotypes with a dash of tokenism you can root for. You know all will end well. It’s a straight line. You might have seen this before. Well, thanks to the ur-college comedy, the green jello snorf of Animal House casts its guitar-smashing shadow over Accepted, as well as all the other college comedies that got thrown up in its fart you have seen this coming. Revenge Of The Nerds, Old School, the original American Pie here. Slobs versus snobs. Freewheeling versus square dealing (or really?). Saddles versus paddles (wait a minute). You get it. Now go with it.

I call Accepted a good Saturday afternoon movie. Off work. No errands. Slouched on the couch and, hey, there’s the remote. Snap on the Netflix feed and there go 90 minutes. The spazzy, overwatered dog can wait at the door. A good waste of time, curled up with a dumb, self-aware comedy. You’re already seen Casino too many times already. Time for some popcorn fodder.

In my opinion there are two types of comedy: clever and intellectual or shameless and derivative. The first is like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The second is like John Landis’ Animal House (my fave ever comedy. Shocker there). With Annie Hall, you gotta sift for the joke. With Animal House the joke is all over us. Thankfully, Accepted mimicked Landis’ magnum opus shamelessly and with great aplomb.

Director Pink knew exactly where to come from here. College comedy? Animal House is a safe bet. Any new spin? Um, nope. Enough nope to blatantly rip off tons of scenes and tropes from Landis’ marvel. With no shame. And all for the better.

Justin “I’m a Mac” Long was an inspired bit casting as our hapless B. He’s like Ferris Beuller lite. Rather than winging it in his collegiate charade he’s flying be the seat of his pants to keep his SH*T scheme aloft. A lot of thinking on his feet, which always goes catastrophically right furthering making hole deeper. He’s good at being just on the cusp of awkward (“This is another fine mess…”), stumbling and taking his fellow washouts with him. SH*T is a character in itself, akin to the doctor’s Monster and is always teetering on going on the rampage. B’s never truly cool under pressure, and his provides enough tension with his last-minute, half-baked plotting to keep you interested.

If only as an avatar for featuring a chockful of young stars no sane audience would mistake for actual high school grads. That being said, behold the birth of Jonah Hill’s dry, slacker wit. Hard to believe that super fluffy Hill here would go on to earn an Oscar nom, but gift for one-liners are here. Roughhewn, but here. His nerdy Schrader (a nod to infamous, scandalous scenarist Paul Schrader maybe?) is the “sweat act,” the voice of reason, the guy who got into his first choice real college, the protag’s best bud and the Flounder analog for Accepted. His was the not-so-envious position to picture legit college life against B’s freewheeling experiment in Camp North Star meets Lincoln Tech, which of course is far more liberal arts and precious few pretensions. His head’s in Harmon U, his wing is around B, snarky to the end. After wearing a hot dog suit, where do you think Schrader’s allegiance lies? I think Hill’s role as lovable loser here was his breakout.

Since my brain was turned off from my Scorsese-vision and allowed to just sponge, I let myself pay some attention to the minor players. At first I found them driftwood (read: Lively as the romantic interest who was so much wallpaper, doy), but I eventually warmed up to the supporting cast. At first the aforementioned tokenism is its drab guises told me yeah, okay. These folks are gonna fade into the background. Big ups to scenarist Adam Cooper et al to actually use this dips as essential to the A plot. There was a hint of actual filmmaking going on there. A crossbreed between Annie Hall and Animal House, Jugdish! To put it simply, the intro of lost scholarship Hands and Yale-denied Rory was just, yeah, whatever, B’s fellow washouts. The second act proves different, but in a friendly, soul-searching kind of way. Isn’t that a part of the whole (non) college experience? Between marching band practice and endless philosophy seminars I discovered Bob Mould and Korean food. Guess what went further? Maria Thayer and Columbus Short’s awakening as guru and artisan proved if not honest but refreshing, and not just a gimmick. Simply put, we got some money with our minors. Even the minor minors. I’m not gonna so far as to say the supporting cast was “colorful,” I’m saying Pink, Cooper and our rogue’s gallery were good stretching a cinematic dollar. You didn’t feel ripped off of your two Saturday afternoon dollars. Overall predictable, sure, but yeah. Vacuum the FunYuns off your sweater before your kids want some.

I found the ultimate appeal of Accepted was the geek factor. Look, if you set the wayback machine to high school, only the precious few found/created their own cliques of like-minded plastics and/or nerds. High school is that tricky time during adolescence as crucible tenuously balanced between the very deep “Who am I?” up against the greater, often superfluous “Who are we and why care?” Such social structures take the back seat with Accepted (this is post-grad ennui we’re lapping at here, not the cool kids’ lunch table). All that is woolgathering. Here we know the dorks will triumph. Accepted is all about how said mutants do so. The model students at the alabaster Harmon U are an afterthought Omega House, and their subplot is mostly forgotten as SH*T evolves into a pseudo-legit school. That’s where the honey is. Pink may be no DeMille, but he knows how to shove around a cast of thousands—okay, hundreds, if that with multiple stunt doubles and pro skateboarders—into the right places. The rabble is as much as much a singular character as, well, you are. The uncertainty of your future. The ensuing circles you run in. The dopey choices you make for good or for ill. If this sounds like a lot of existential hokum, it is. Either flowing from B’s seat of his pants thinking on his feet, or you just being in a potential life-changing clusterf*ck, figuring it all out and keep at least one foot on the ground is relatable for everyone. At it core, watching  Accepted is like talking yourself out of a speeding ticket. And how relieved you feel if you pull it off.

Yeah yeah yeah. I’m going on like Accepted was the second coming of Chaplin’s The Circus. Call it slow burn elation that comes with an entertaining film you don’t have to think about. Accepted is deliberate fluff. It kinda works. I say kinda because if you’re a thinking person, capping the cynicism lens might prove difficult. You gotta be in the right mood to watch this trash. Guess Netflix caught me on a needful day. Don’t forget, this has been done before, shoehorning tropes from milestone movies into lesser specimens, if only they are trying pay homage. The film understands this. It’s all about how the ornaments. Your Xmas tree already lost all its needles.

Just let me quote this once more when it comes to mediocre movies (it should become part of The Standard by now). It’s like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played. Accepted had easy pacing, inoffensive characters, a reliable story device and a thorough stream of chuckles. I started watching Accepted with my cynic lens firmly capped. I plotted on my notebook a “laugh meter” and tacked off every time I giggled. I gave up in the first act. What I sat down for delivered just fine.

So it’s Saturday and you’re waiting for the college boards to call. While you wait (and wait and wait), queue up Accepted as a good waste of time. Lars Von Trier can wait (and wait and wait and…)

*stirs, brushes pretzel salt off crotch*

Where was I? Right. Learning how to work the system while schilling for Apple. Here’s hoping.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Like I said, funny and a fair time waster. Feel feel to pore over the latest from Werner Herzog some Monday evening on PBS.


Stray Observations….

  • “Are you huffing grass?”
  • Bartleby, as in “the scrivener?” As in “ghostwriter?” Hmm.
  • No matter what role Lewis Black plays he’s always Lewis Black. Even for Inside Out. God bless ‘im.
  • “Yeah. In human dollars.”
  • Dr Chilton—er—Dean Van Horn’s motives echo Dean Wormer’s. No Millennial fun of any kind.
  • “I want to learn how to blow sh*t up with my mind!” Hey, who doesn’t?
  • I think Pink has a Cusack crush. He’s worked within and out of that film family before. That’s John and Joan’s sis Ann as B’s mom. She has the best cleavage of them all. Especially John.
  • “This is so cheezy in the greatest way.” The movie in a nutshell.
  • Did they ever clean up that bathroom?

Next Installment…

John Q Archibald takes on the health care system with a very specific agendum: find a way to save his son’s life. Hell, after tossing all those forms to the floor what else would you do? F*cking vote?


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?