RIORI Presents Installment #181: Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40” (2012)



The Players…

Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd, Maude Apatow and Iris Apatow, with John Lithgow, Albert Brooks, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi, Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd, Lena Dunham, Melissa McCarthy and Graham Parker.


The Basics…

Middle age creeps into the lives of Pete and Debbie and certain things aren’t so certain anymore. Then again, on the brighter side, some things always are.

The tough stuff? Financial woes, naturally. Parenting headaches. Extended family members always politely but disdainfully asking, “What are you going to do with your life?” Such things can be a melange of hard questions with no easy answers as the reality of your life being half over gradually sinks in. Uncertainty pervades every aspect of your life.

So what’s the good news? The certainty that no matter how nuts and how fast your life is winding down your family and friends will do the best to get your back. Even if you’re both grown-ups and you don’t want them to.

Best embrace that. Won’t come around again.


The Intro…

I’ve done this before, section off the rant. This time out there are stipulations. This iteration should be read as an essay, like for a college course (or an early Kevin Smith film). Gauged and patiently that.

Never fear, however. None of this will be on the final exam.


The Rant, pt. I: Denial and Rationalization…

When I turned 40 I could’ve cared less. Sure, it’s considered a milestone, however as you get older those ages capped with a zero start taking on a less-than-pleasant connotation than your first 30 years. Meaning no one 29 and under trusts you anymore. You’ve seen the tee shirt.

A lifetime ago I covered The Wolverine and went on this fantastic tangent about how the West and the East regard youth. It was an X-Men movie; I was in rare form. To recap, most countries in Asia venerate seniors for their experience, knowledge and all of Grandma’s secret recipes. In the West we praise youth, meaning potential, wide horizons and well-skilled with the ideal time to nuke a Hot Pocket to drippy perfection. Consider the matter of a very young, hotshot lawyer becoming a partner before 30, such skills they have. Success then knowledge! You follow. And it sounds good—and often is—but my bet is on the friendly, tenured philosophy professor whose knows all his students by name and walks 30 minutes to class each day, Red Bull in hand, for reliability.

Yeah, I respect my elders. Even though I ain’t eld. Yet. Put down your Blue Books.

So yeah, when I turned 40 it was just another day. Most people chalk that birthday up to identity crisis. Me? I fixed my old video game consoles from the 8-, 16- and 32-bit years and told my then wife I needed to dress better. So between engaging in another round of Ocarina Of Time and purchasing a few smart sweaters life went on as usual. But it was the year that the fateful age began yelling at me nonetheless.

I had a crap day at work (had quite a few of those back then). Someone leaked that it was my birthday. I gave up counting when 30 rolled around and the Millennials dubbed Interpol as “classic rock.” Kept feeling razzed. Already had enough frustrations in my life—financial, marital, parental, still unable to catch all those stupid Poes—that being treated like a kid almost not a kid. Whatever my fellow deviants’ brand of salt felt ideal to rub into my wounds wasn’t something I needed. That and my back was bothering me.

I was at the barest end of my thirties. I felt that all my efforts to get my sh*t together were in vain. Was drummed out of my first chef’s position. Had kicked the pills but beer always reared its frothy head. Three degrees on my resume but still pulling slave wages for 60-plus hours a week (if it weren’t for overtime I couldn’t pay for jack since the wifey refused to get a job). Stuck at home with my parents with my family in tow after being evicted years back. No social life. No social time (save churning out these screeds, and just barely). A bum knee. Dandruff. An acquired hatred of shrimp cocktail. The list could’ve gone on. I was not a happy camper. I figured while most Gen X thrity-somethings were climbing the corporate ladder, I kept going below decks to scrape out the grease trap.

The following is exaggerated. Makes for a better story. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend:

My fortieth year was the year when my body began to rebel. A decade plus working in kitchens will take its toll as folks who have gone over Kitchen Confidential with a highlighter know. It’s not being on your feet all day—it’s not just that—but it is a piece of the puzzle as the hours upon weeks upon years roll on. All that bending and stretching. Knife cuts and burns. You’re hearing gets low level tinnitus from the constant drone of the hoods. You’re expected to work sick, even if you have a doctor’s note (never happened). However it wasn’t my age that did me in, per se. Just warned me about possible wreck and ruin.

I’ll cut to the chase: had a few falls in my career—physical ones as well as otherwise—which screwed up my lower back. Took to wearing a brace from time to time, but only as a Band-Aid. The joint where I was working come that fateful shift was a wellspring of tumbles for me. Crappy shoes, wet floor, pow, ow. Slipped on the ice off the loading dock. Lost my footing in the stairwell. I’m not a clumsy person, not really, but those imps of the perverse were out to get me. Even after I invested in some better footwear.

The pièce de résistance came when I literally fell out of the kitchen. Like outside. Onto the sidewalk. Mats weren’t laid down flat. Trip and oopsie. Did and somersault and landed on all fours with a mighty pop! I suddenly had no spine. I could not move. All was numb. The wind knocked out of me. I was afraid to move. My coworkers wanted to give me a hand up but I waved them off. I was still assessing the damage.

When I was sure nothing was broken I laid down on the ground. The pain was there, this dull, throbbing, really pissed off pain. The kind that mocks you. I laid there until one of my supers came by. He had back trouble also and sympathized, carefully helped me up. I was scared. With that terrific header I had no idea what had caused what and was afraid to move…period. He helped me fill out the incident report, let me go home, gave me a Vicodin and took me to my car. He asked if I was okay to drive. I was and called him once I got home. There I called the doctor, made an appointment and laid down on my bedroom for a while, letting the pill do its thing. Didn’t really help.

I confessed to the skylight—Roger Murtaugh-style—uttering out loud, “I’m getting too old for this sh*t…”

Quit laughing. It’s no big shocker as you get older you don’t recover from anything fast, and the older you get you may not recover period. I don’t mean the Grim Reaper knocking at your bathroom door, not yet anyway. Just things ain’t gonna be the same anymore. In your 20s you could survive on 3 hours of sleep, Natty Ice, Red Bull and a Snickers bar a week. When you hit 40 you hopefully have learned Red Bull is made from bile, Natty Ice is paint stripper and Snickers bars are made from lies and deception. Better belly up to the trough with strong coffee (for its wake-up call after its wake-up call), Grape-Nuts and Icy Hot applied when needed. Ha ha. You’ll get there you whelps, saving up for your PS5s and perpetual adolescence upkeep. I’m jealous really.

My debilitating fall had much to do with my age. Plain bad luck was closer to the truth. It was more akin to someone who had recently suffered a concussion should not be allowed to take a nap. The grind was all over me, paired with the never-ending stress of being broke and being broke. But really, I think it took that incident to get me to do some real self-assessment. I was talking to a window, let’s start there. An angry back isn’t anything fresh sweaters could remedy. My 20s were long gone; those college days as a punker/raver desperate writer were out to pasture. My 30s were just yesterday when I was doing restaurant work, had a radio show on the side and started this dimwit blog. Then here I was—am—with a bum back, still a bum knee, divorced from both my wife and my job and left wondering “What happened?” All that and me fumbling through Riven again on the PS2 like I did 20 years ago on my PC, which is now scrap.

Kinda like me.


The Rant, pt. II: Acceptance and Capability…

I think that is the crux of the turning 40 dilemma: what happened? It’s around that age when one starts either a full blown or low key existential crisis, whether they realize it or not. You get hair plugs or refurbish old video game consoles respectively. Turning 40 is the gateway to old age, when nostalgia really starts to matter. It’s when you begin to consider fiber more than just an ingredient in morality. It’s when you start voting straight ticket—regardless of the candidates’ Grape-Nut intake—so long as they won’t raise taxes (EG: “Hey, the guy might’ve murdered 30 children and made boxer shorts out of their hides but at least he won’t raise taxes”). Is the Clash really considered “oldies?” Why is it whenever I watch Jeopardy! all the advertisements are peddling heavy pharmaceuticals? How does Wi-Fi work and why can’t I master the 720º? I mean, Tony Hawk is over 40 and he can…because he’s in better shape than me. Strong back. Whimper.

It’s all about insecurity and uncertainty, but without the panache of getting older and therefore wiser living in the Land of the Rising Sun. No. We live in American, Home of the Whopper, and knowing better we still get pissy when the shake machine is down. We’re confused. Hitting 40 does not necessary mean you’re old. It means you’re on your way. Consider this: based on anthropological studies that without readily available food and water sources, modern medicine and reliable shelter the average human lifespan would be approximately 35 years in the wild. See all you birthday buddies? You’d already be a feast for worms by now without aspirin. Now life is simply metaphorically short, but that doesn’t mean you don’t begin winding down at 40. It’s about your perceived obsolescence, reinforced by what Madison Avenue pitches to you and the younger generation no longer regarding you as on the bubble. Recall the retro gaming references I made above; vital to me, maybe to you but most likely not to Gen Z. Or Gen AA. You know, the future consumers. The past is always catching up to you—whether it be in the forms of playing outmoded video games or nasty falls past—and the future is a maw that can’t be fed.

Scary. And inevitable. All apologies.

Despite it all, turning 40 can be fun, at least with us, the rabble that is Gen X. We’ve since reached that cachet of pop culture loaded with high watermarks of hipness. And some were. As we live on, nostalgia is the yardstick by which we measure our cultural awareness. Discounting technological advances it’s safe to assume our parents would never have dreamt that their progeny could make a living blogging about video games of have a YouTube channel devoted solely that is the magic that is James Blunt (with a million-plus subs, and BitCoin out the bum). Nostalgia idealizes the past and fandom defines the present now, and thanks to the Internet and a million ways to be trolled, Gen X is swamped in pop culture as personal definition, then and future.

If you caught my take on High Fidelity way back when, there came a scene where John Cusack’s disenfranchised 30-something character Rob confesses: “I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like…Books, records, films—these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the f*ckin’ truth.” And it is. At least for forty-somethings like me, barely aware (barring the occasion back injury) we’re getting up there. Probably because there is so much saturation and value of innumerable pop culture touchstones these days. What I mean is akin to every Boomer boasting they were at Woodstock—the first time—there will be a Gen Xer claiming they caught one of Billie Joe’s dirt clods at Woodstock ’94 (and also boast that Dylan was there, not so back in 1969. Nyah). We win. F*ck age and Rogaine. We’re always on the hunt for cool and obscure Americana that memes are made of. Fruitless passion for sure, but at least its passion ignoring you old arse. For instance I studied large wads of Shakespeare in college, but am only able recall famous lines these days (EG: “To be or not to be!” “My kingdom for a horse!” “Stop!” etc). But ask me to flip the switch you can guarantee I’ll shout with Shakespearean gusto: “There are four lights!” You get it or you don’t.

My generation is indeed defined by pop culture, and not the other way around. We don’t create it as much as we engulf it. Every age has their high points and gravedigger lows. It’s all about where we focus the lens and what comes into view. What Cusack said in the movie is apt in keeping Gen X creaking towards obsolesce in check. You doubtless have noticed all the pop culture crap I rattled off above, and doubtless many of my generation raised more than a few eyebrows. You may lurch through your day with aches and pains, but all gets lost in a blur as soon as someone starts quoting lines from Dazed And Confused. Or GoodFellas. Or The Big Lebowski (ah, I can hear them brows a-bristlin’). Pop touchstones are what Gen X social circles run on. And on. And on and on.

I’m guilty of it, too. We are not the generation that sit by the fireside with snifters of brandy, waxing philosophical about which existentialist was correct in gauging the human condition: Kirkegaard or Sartre. No. We don’t even while our time in front of a few eps of Star Trek. We binge from Kirk to Picard to Picard and back again, covered in Cheeto dust. We have 1,000 friends on  FaceBook, but we don’t. Just a feed to 1,000 Trekkies waxing philosophical about things like: “Wait, if Discovery takes place before TOS, then how come Mr Spock only as access to buttons?” And we raise our glasses. Such dialogues in echo chambers is what we’re all about. Hell, we invented the Internet after all, for shopping and stealing music and PornHub and establishing once and for all was Simone de Beauvoir Sartre’s girlfriend or not (not exactly: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir). Just like that. Tidbits of trivia define Gen X, and boy are we adept at calling them out. Such goofy knowledge is a clarion call to all other would-be slackers to declare we are alive!

Which kinda makes socializing a one-trick pony, especially regarding relationships. Who we are is what Rob declared/warned us about. It’s more about things than exhaling ideas these days, and you can’t build a relationship on how many still-in-box first gen Transformers you own, how you successfully translated Wookkie into Japanese and how well-versed in how many lead singers Black Flag had and why. Why do we do this? Is this easier than asking, “How’re you doing?” I don’t know. I’ve done similar things in “conversation” as much as the next dork.

And hell, in billions years when the Earth gets engulfed by the expansion of a dying sun and has its atmosphere boiled off like so much toasted bread through fondue, it will not matter who was more vital a human. Cobain or Einstein?

When that time comes, my money would be on Kepler.


The Story…

The dull ticking of the clock is slowing down. Pete and Debbie (Rudd and Mann) are feeling the grinding, almost arresting halt that reaching 40 does to your average Gen X’er with kids, mortgages, business matters and an unhealthy adherence to a fitness regime. Silly biker shorts and all.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. The kids of the 80s had enough to fear already (read: toughen them up for the big bad real world) what with the Cold War and MAD ever looming, the evil specter of AIDS, massive savings and loans collapsing into a financial canyon and the peril of New Coke. The couple should be tougher for it all, and yet someone or something yanked the carpet up from under them.

It’s called a midlife crisis. It’s not just time crawling ever onwards, it also realizing things don’t always work out according to plan, even if you didn’t exactly have one.

Debbie’s fashion boutique is inexplicably losing money despite doing good business. She suspects someone is stealing, like one of her trusted employees. Debbie has trust issues, but not with Desi and Jodi (Fox and Yi). She refuses to not trust them. Ever since Deb was a kid she’s had trust and abandonment issues stemming from when her estranged father, the successful surgeon Oliver (Lithgow) divorced her mom when she was nine. How could she bail on her staff? Um, wait a minnit.

Pete’s indie record label is slumping because he won’t represent new talent, only classic indie rockers…that he likes. Even scoring a record deal with the venerable British rocker Graham Parker (himself) isn’t attracting much business. That and Pete’s financial woes are doubled (if not tripled) by his dad Larry (Brooks) who found himself suddenly in the family way due to an all too successful fertilization procedure. Not to mention Pete is the only typical white male American who even knows who Graham Parker is.

Pete and Debbie hemorrhaging cash all over the place. The spats between their kids Sadie and Charlotte (the Apatow girls) are reaching the intestine of an Olympic event. Deb can’t kick smoking. Pete is addicted to sweets. Both are unable to give up the ghosts that embody daddy issues. And to top it all off, our struggling couple are looking down another daunting deadline:

Pete and Debbie are both turning forty.

Dear Lord, who needs a cupcake? How ’bout a loosey?


The Breakdown…

Apatow. You either enjoy him or don’t. Or merely tolerate him. I think I may be in the latter camp.

I dug The 40-Year Old VirginKnocked Up was enjoyable enough, if that’s the adjective to use. Funny People wasn’t really. Haven’t seen Trainwreck (yet). All the movies in his oeuvre have a sort of “take it or leave it” quality about them. Either go along for the ride or get kicked to the curb, and make sure to establish how not cool you are to appreciate such breathtaking scatological discourse. It’s all about the fractured human condition. Ever hear of Sartre?

This Is 40 follows in Apatow’s usual vein. Clumsy romance, the strains of relationships (both family and romantic), one too many sight gags involving weed and/or booze, megadoses of pop culture references that only…well, a guy like me would get. All of which hangs together in a ramshackle fashion like rats abandoning a sinking ship, yet still makes sense anyway against all odds and breaking many unspoken rules about making movie.

Clutter never has seemed to bother Apatow much, though. His movies will go on as long as they have to in order to make their message known. Or simply entertain you. Or frustrate you. Or whatever. Still, 40 is patchwork entertaining with all the above Apatow hallmarks (including working with the same actors, who are usually great). And discounting all the meatball surgical direction of 40, it all hung together pretty well—like Calder mobile made of fart jokes—but I did have a nagging concern that I just couldn’t shake about 40. It was about the plot.

There wasn’t one.

The flick was strung together by a series of vignettes that did not provide a cohesive narrative, just scenes pertinent to the overarching idea of what Apatow thought it meant to reach middle age. A collage, if you will. If you’ve never seen it (which is unlikely come holiday time) Bob Clark’s perennial fave A Christmas Story toes the same line. It’s also a series of vignettes strung together with a common thread of little Ralphie getting his ultimate Xmas present. Half the film isn’t even about Xmas, let alone the wishes for the ideal gift. There is no plot, just scenes to entertain, not unlike a few of artsy-fartsy Jim Jarmusch’s arthouse cinema for the masses. No story. Nope. Just a theme. And with 40, there was barely even that.

It got tricky fast for Apatow to let me in on where the hell was he going. The man used to be a stand-up comic, and his credentials led to him co-creating the sketch comedy program The Ben Stiller Show back in the 90s. I’m gonna assume that Apatow took something away from Stiller, that is how his directorial style “flows.” 40 plays out like sketchy comedy, one wacky bit precedes another wacky bit. Good for sketch comedy, bad for comedy films. Everything getting disjointed and muddled and all head-scratchy ain’t funny, unless you’re in Monty Python, but they broke the mold.

Okay, okay, okay. There are some one-trick pony comedy upstarts out there that have made painfully funny films based almost totally on one-liners and sight gags. The ZAZ team for one (EG: Airplane!, The Naked Gun series, etc), 99% of Mel Brooks’ catalog and the Marx Brothers’ antics to name a few. I’ve seen most of those kinds of films, and precious few have anything approaching sticking to the narrative.

But they have plots, and Apatow cannot have his both ways. You cannot direct a comedy film comparable to a sketch show, and some splash and dash by introducing insight into the lives of a family in distress and rely on Family Guy-like pabulum/Gen X pop culture conventions to stand in for a cohesive script. 40 came across to me as plundered the endless well of 90s nostalgia to lure us in. But I got tired of South Park after its second season. I got the joke real quick like: enjoying pop culture en masse is always pleasing, and that’s a gyp. The literal translation from Latin is “a return to home.” Sounds like comedy cheating to me. Based on that precept, Apatow was shoehorning gags in the very slight crevices of a potential story. Like with poor Ralphie, there were underlying themes to 40, but there was no underlying direction, which I felt it was so muddled.

There. Now please open your textbooks to page…

BONK!

Moving up to empty bottles now, eh? Hm. Might deserve it.

Since the rant was cleaved in twain and regarded as a term paper I’m going to get all collegiate and analytical on 40‘s ass. After what I was treated to, the curious will thank me later.

What I took away from 40 was a tableau of how white people react to turning forty years of age. That was about it. Scenes upon scenes of the oys and joys of middle aged suburbia and all its trappings with maniac Apatow at the helm. Again, that was pretty much it. Don’t misunderstand me though, there were plenty of laughs—the awkward, self-deprecating kind that is the director’s signature—drawn from a pretty apt portrait of family politics in the 21st Century. The man must’ve taken notes drawn from personal observations of married couples trying to communicate. Poor communication is another well Apatow draws from when creating his comedy worlds. That and, hell, being Gen X himself making movies to personify a whole generation’s cynicism and anxiety.

I spoke of my generation’s obsession with pop culture as identity. There was a subtext to 40 that keenly addressed that trap. Was the film trying to make Gen X feel old, yet still “cool?” Back to that nostalgia fest again. It was one idea of a paltry few that held this sketch comedy together. We can all rally around screaming Pixies’ songs in the car, much to our kids’ chagrin as well as…everything we do to our kids’ chagrin. Gen X is terminally trapped in their 20s, always pushing against that feeling of “What happened?” I do. I have a kid. I like the Pixies and she’s never heard of them, despite the fact she has free reign over my iTunes library and can have access to all their albums including the reunion ones. Means something to me, now and then, but she loves My Chemical Romance and TikToks of MCR and neither of the three things were around in my 20s so I just lean back. Lean back into that trip realm of “What happened?”

Let’s expound on that, shall we? My generation is arrested development personified. Apatow gets this, which is why his films soar on wink wink nudge nudge. It’s the same as what I commented about before: Family Guy and South Park humor. Dropping the dime on pop culture without really considering it. It works for us, since we were/are so media drenched. Don’t believe me? My generation created “binge watching.” We also claimed that too much TV made you stupid. Perhaps Apatow’s movies are a reflection of that. At least his characters magnify that conceit.

When I was in college in the late 90s, in my early 20s, I thought I had it knocked when it came to personal identity. I was an English scholar, focused on writing and education. I was in the band and played a few different instruments to varying levels of skill. I was a punker/raver guy, replete with leather, baggy torn jeans, broken wing fashion sense and multiple piercings (most self-administered). I had a healthy library, both books and music. I was a member of the anime club and made sure to keep abreast of what Spidey was up to each and every month. I ran with many crowds but was always myself.

“What happened?”

Maturity. Parenthood. Bills. And being 40 does not warrant one to go around looking like Joey Ramone and Keith Flint had a baby. Both are dead. ‘Nuff said. Still collect comics, though. Those were my halcyon days, but I never realized it until I hit 40. Such angst it well illustrated by Pete and Debbie; they’re not afraid of middle age. They want to scream out loud they are still relevant, if only to themselves.

Pete and Debbie are the self-appointed gatekeepers of cool, despite what they deem cool is lost on the Instagram crowd. Debbie owns a semi-failing chi chi boutique in a business world where such things are no longer viable (that’s what Etsy is for). That and she’s in denial of her actual age. Pete runs a flailing indie record label promoting sundown artists that only he deems worthy based on personal artistic merit when what he needs is a Lady Gaga. I like both Parker and Gaga. Pete’s in denial of being out of touch with an audience. Any audience. Couples always fight about sex and money. Such things are not necessary endemic to a mid-life crisis, but through Apatow’s lens it sure seems that way.

Despite my griping, the man does have a way with a camera. His illustrations of aging Gen X frustrations are attentively apt. I’ve been there. Like parents getting caught by their kids doing anything they don’t want them to see. I’m not just talking about the silly, clumsy REDACTED scene, I’m talking about arguing over non-finances being frittered away by flying in the Rumour to back up Graham like back in the day to a half full club date. Like hacking into the kids iPad to scan their texts, or even monitor the store for possible theft. Don’t these idiots know what’s good for them?!? Sorry guys, your kids don’t care about your fleeting dreams. They care about you and getting fed on a regular basis. Wake up.

But no. No they won’t. They don’t have to. It’s the other side of 40‘s coin. Celebrate and dissect our generation getting old, then go into screaming denial when such an epiphany comes. Although Apatow’s work here is scattershot, his message (if there is one) here is there is always an element of deception creeping in order to keep the status quo status between family, work and ego. Denial is the watchword of 40 and Gen X. All will be well in the end run if we deny an end run.

My take is pretty heavy on such a frayed film. What it lacked in substance, originality and cohesion good jokes and a stellar cast stuck to my ribs. But in the endgame 40 feels like there was no solid story. And in particular no resolution. It just ends. That might’ve been some kind of existential meditation on how life gets frittered away on outside influences, within and without.

So what? Is there a message here with 40? Middle age sucks? Family sucks? Lady GaGa sucks? Everything sucks? Or does it all work out somehow?

Well, recall that this was an Apatow movie so insert dick joke here and go along with the ride.

Get it?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. It’s funny, but needs some Krazy Glue to hold the imperfect narrative together. That and it’s aimed at a specific demographic, insinuated like when I feel a headache coming on and pay close attention to Jeopardy!‘s second commercial break. Here comes the rooster.


The Musings…

  • “Forty can suck my dick!” Yep.
  • As Apatow’s films roll ever onward, he must accept the value of an editor, and not include outtakes and gag reels within the movie. Gag reels go at the end of the movie. This might explain why such a 90 minute movie needlessly bloats into over 2 hours. Just saying.
  • “Sometimes I wish just one of you had a dick.” “Well, we don’t want one.” Modern parenting.
  • I’m actually a big fan of Graham Parker. No, really.
  • “You’re so mean since your body got weird.” Such knows no generation.
  • Scripts are nice sometimes.
  • “Are you trying to start a fight?”
  • Was the entire birthday party scene improvised? I’d like to believe so.
  • “Hello. There are children around.”
  • You ever notice how often I bring up retro gaming as a metaphor and/or barometer of cultural awareness? Um, how old did I say I was again, you nerf herder?
  • “Don’t blink!”

The Next Time…

Dive! Dive! U-571 is a Nazi sub! Launch torpedoes! At her Allied crew! Featuring Jon Bon Jovi! You read that right!


 

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?


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 13: Mike Figgis’ “Timecode” (2000)


Timecode


The Players…

Many.


The “Story”…

A harrowing chronicle of fear and loathing in Los Angeles. Shot on digital video in real time, four stories are told simultaneously, each in a separate on-screen frame, depicting the City of Angels at its least angelic, with sex romps, drugs and Hollywood antics taking center stage. Sounds like a typical day in Tinsel Town, split four ways.


The Rant…

For some reason, either out of respect for the reading public or the fact that I’ve been out of snarky character for the past few reviews (oh dear, I’ve begun to take myself seriously), I feel the need to apologize for the last installment of RIORI. It’s not that I want to recant what I wrote about From Hell. I did like the movie. It’s just I fear I’m starting to crawl up mine own ass and sounding like a stuffy, professional movie critic, getting further and further away from beating on The Standard I so hotly held onto a year ago when I started this shebang.

Truth be told: I hate movie critics, and with a few choice exceptions, I find them to be ignorant, pompous, joyless creeps who either have little to no sense of fun and/or, well, are stuffy asshats. F*ck them. Movies are supposed to be looked upon as fun, first and foremost. I’d rather take on a half-assed tweet about the latest Transformers installment as review than an uptight, arrogant take on a movie series that wasn’t meant to be anything but fun in the first place (although I admit, Michael Bay’s films in general suck). And I don’t wanna be hoodwinked by some scribbler into seeing a sh*tty movie who has Fellini enemas every weekend to ward off the popcorn demons. You gotta have the dumb to go with the smart. Summer blockbusters are as American as Latino, pizza and being Made In Japan, and indie films are not the be all and end all of cinematic j*zzum, as some critics would have you think (either way). So extricating my brain from my sphincter and deciding to get back on track, I tackled an experimental film this time out.

*slaps forehead in the fashion of Homer Simpson*

Oops. Well, like I said on the title page, I am not a movie critic. I am a consumer advocate. I am also an idiot. Read on.

I usually give a flowery synopsis of the movie at this point in my screed. Well this time out, I ain’t doin’ it. It’s simply because Timecode has no plot. This li’l stinker of an indie project so incredibly ego-driven is nothing more than an exercise in irritating an audience, both emotionally and physically. You see, Timecode was shot on four digital camcorders, all a single take, and each feed is played out simultaneously on the screen in quadrants, not unlike a bank of security camera monitors. The audio fades in and out of each “screen” to hint at plot progression. But there is no damn plot. The whole wad is an improvised ensemble piece ostensibly about the daily goings-on at a Hollywood production company that grinds along for 90 minutes in such an incoherent fashion you gotta wonder who bankrolled this film. It’s not a film for the ADHD generation. Truth be told, this movie has Down Syndrome.

Timecode is very hard to follow at first. It’s kinda like getting your vision checked at the doctor’s. You gotta double check every frame to make sure you’re getting the whole of the half-baked, pseudo-existentialist plotline. In some aspects its oddly engaging in a novelty sense, like that “Pac-Man Fever” one hit wonder (that dates even me). The movie plays out as one grand experiment fevered by caffeine and hubris, but not without a few charms. For instance, name a flick that features a supple Salma Hayek make out with Jeanne Tripplehorn and later f*ck a lumpy, boozy Stellan Skarsgard with the rough cuts of a sorta porno screen test as backdrop? What? You know one? F*ckin’ drunken liar.

Here’s a stitch: Timecode had a broke-ass budget and still managed to tank at the box office. I know we’re talking limited release here, but when you drop only $5 million on production and only recoup a little over $1 million at the box office…Sh*t, you could’ve smelled the flop sweat coming from director Figgis’ brow. Probably due to the screaming of the editors. A cheapie that couldn’t recoup the cost of catering. Pathetic, you say? Well, I could call it gutsy. I won’t, but still…

Timecode is like the apex predator of a popular film style of the 90’s. Like the intersecting story arc model (Pulp Fiction, Go, Magnolia, etc.) taken to its Mountain Dewiest extreme, this flick overreaches. But unlike those more palatable (and plot driven) films, Timecode fails to give a sh*t about the audience. There ain’t nuffin wrong with improvisation in movies, but when it gets overused (or the sole MO of the movie) it alienates the audience; there’s nothing solid to center in on. Beyond especially who you have to watch four films at once. I know, I know. It’s the same film. I don’t care. I only have two eyes. Seriously, having to try to make an attempt at concentration for a film hell bent for leather to be off kilter…F*ck, gimme an Advil. Seriously, I got a fur-real headache watching this movie.

Still, I gotta give Mike “Leaving Las Vegas” Figgis props for his nerve (though mindless and inconsiderate) in creating this Petri dish of a movie. I figure Timecode was too smart for me. It probably was, what with my adoration of early John Cusack films. I had to Black Dahlia it and watch it twice to make sure I “got it.” I didn’t. And yet I got in one viewing.

Wait! That film was entertaining! Timecode left my brow permanently furrowed. Ow.

I’m gonna go watch One Crazy Summer again for the umpteenth time.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Pass the aspirin.


Stray Observations…

  • I suspect that which frame you’re drawn to says a lot about you.
  • This film required the least amount of notes I have ever taken. Yay! I saved ink!

Next Installment…

What’s the password? Swordfish.