(Video on Demand, November 2015) Much has been said about how Trainwreck is director Judd Apatow’s first film for which he did not write the screenplay; the prevailing hope being that writer/star Amy Schumer’s script would avoid a number of Apatow’s most problematic tics, in particular his tendency to meander and deliver bloated films with largely-unnecessary third acts. Now that the film is here, though, critics have a good proof that all scripts are filtered through their director’s quirks, and so Trainwreck doesn’t exactly improve a whole lot on the indulgent ramblings, tangential subplots, improvised dialogues and low stakes so characteristics of other Apatow films. Do note that his strengths also carry through: it’s a convincingly naturalistic exploration of modern relationships, with some good set-pieces, persona-stretching performances, frank discussions and down-to-earth situations. Trainwreck should appeal, as labeled, to fans of Apatow’s previous films or Schumer’s increasingly familiar comic persona. Plot-wise, there isn’t much to see here: It’s a fairly standard romantic comedy formula, used as a foundation on which to play character-driven comic moments. As the philandering, weed-using, underachieving lead, Schumer navigates a tricky line as a somewhat unlikable protagonist who gets to grow a bit during the course of the film. Far more likable are some personalities in bit-parts: John Cena is unexpectedly hilarious in a small but merciless role, while Lebron James (of all people) gets more than his share of laughs playing himself. Still, much of the film is pretty much everything you’ve come to expect from the Apatow laugh factory: Those who aren’t fans (or worse; those who aren’t fans and are not in sports), may not find themselves as entertained by Trainwreck as those who are.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) There is a good reason why Funny People often comes up in any discussion of Adam Sandler’s career: While Sandler has done dramatic roles elsewhere (Punch-Drunk Love, Reign over Me), his turn in Funny People as a terminally-ill famous comedian trying to grapples with his impending mortality builds upon his performances in other, far sillier movies. It’s a masterful use of an existing actor persona by writer/director Judd Apatow, and Sandler actually gets some dramatic mileage out of his role. A good chunk of the film isn’t bad either: the dramatization of the stand-up comedian’s life in Los Angeles is fascinating, and the film features a bunch of good performances by other actors, from an unusually serious turn for Seth Rogen (with similarities to material later explored in 50/50), to fine performances by Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jason Schwartzman, Jonas Hill, Aubrey Plaza and a ton of comedy cameos. (The Hill/Rogen interactions are fascinating, especially given the trajectories that both of their careers took afterward). Some of the meta-commentary about Sandler films, usually seen through glimpses of the terrible movies featuring the protagonist, are a treat for any followers of American comedy films. Happily, there is some thematic and emotional heft to it all, striking a good balance between comedy and drama. But it could have been better. The first half of Funny People is conventionally satisfying… then comes The Twist, and the second half of the movie seems at odds with the first, the pacing slowing down to a crawl, the setting, characters and tone changing significantly. Apatow, of course, does what he pleases –and his films have never been accused of being too short. But at two-and-a-half hour, Funny People seems to lose its way at some point, and tightening up the result could have worked wonders. Still, Sandler’s striking performance remains, and the result is an impressive collaboration between a gallery of notable circa-2009 comedians.
(On TV, January 2015) I’m slowly getting up to speed on the comedy landmarks of the past decade, and Knocked Up certainly looms large on the list of unmissable films that I had managed to miss. I’m not a big fan of Judd Apatow’s school of crude observational comedies: Their scripts feel loose, the laughs a bit weak, and far too many of the premises are based on cringe-worthy material. I simply don’t identify with the result. Knocked Up is, in many ways, an encapsulation of it all as it studies the aftermath of a one-night stand between a pot-addled slacker (Seth Rogen, who else?) and a wound-up career woman (Katherine Heigl, in something near a career high). It does have the merit to use laughs as a way to address a complicated scenario, and in ways that won’t fail to resonate (even faintly) with any couple. It can also boast of a cast of supporting that would become, later on, a credible who’s-who of American comedy films, from Paul Rudd to Jason Segel to Kristen Wiig to Jonah Hill to Ken Jeong to Jay Baruchel and so on. There are poignant moments and silly laughs all wrapped up in a film that is daring enough to be noticeable, but not so much as to turn everyone against it: Traditional family values are espoused despite the raunchy details. Still, the film feels long and meandering at times, and I’m at the stage in my life where I see the fable of “shlubby nerd gets hot girl” as more toxic than empowering. (To summarize endless pages of hard-earned diatribes that go well beyond the scope of this review, my messages to my younger fellow nerds isn’t “be yourself and something magical will happen” but “grow up; it’s good for you”.) But back on track: Knocked Up may not be everyone’s cup of tea (the sexism is undeniable and the stoner-chic movement has to go away), but it is a films of cultural significance when put alongside the films it drew from and those it inspired. That’s something I’m willing to concede, even if I may not be the best public for its kind of laughs.
(Video on-demand, March 2013) Aimless character-driven comedy about the humanity of relationship makes for a nice change of pace from a diet of highly-plotted action-driven special-effects extravaganza, and you couldn’t ask for more amiable actors than Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann as lead protagonists. This is 40 aims to provide a warts-and-all look at the dynamics of an established marriage, and it doesn’t take a lot to see echoes of universal experience in the sometimes-horrid thoughts expressed here. Still, it’s about sticking together no matter how difficult circumstances can be, and it helps that the dialogue is both cutting and revealing. There is a lot of depth to the ensemble cast, with particularly challenging roles for Albert Brooks and John Lithgow as polar-opposite grand-dads. Everyone is playing their part in a very relaxed fashion, which may explain how and why such a seemingly plot-less film can sustain attention for so long. Where the film falters is in its coda, which wraps up too quickly without giving decent send-offs to the myriad subplots introduced throughout the picture. Still, this is a film about moments, not dramatic arcs: Writer/Director Judd Apatow’s been mining the less-romantic aspects of romance throughout this career, and This is 40 fits squarely in this niche.
(On-demand, October 2012) Most romantic comedies end up when both protagonists are reasonably certain to stay together, but what happens afterwards? The Five-Year Engagement starts with a marriage proposal and then cackles as the protagonists can never completely manage to finalize their wedding plans… for years. Exasperation sets in for the characters, although viewers will be entertained to see Jason Segel (in his usual vulnerable good-guy persona; he co-wrote the script) and Emily Blunt try to figure out the rest of their lives. More sweet than funny, The Five-Year Engagement is stronger on supporting characters and awkward gags than it is at an overarching plot and structure –much of the overlong second act repeats itself, while elements of the third act notably seem too convenient at that stage of the script. What makes the film enjoyable are the performances –not only from the lead actors, but from the colorful supporting cast as well. While the film may not be on solid grounds in some details (if I eat stale doughnuts before they are replaced by new ones, I get twice as many doughnuts, and let’s not kid ourselves: even day-old doughnuts are delicious), it’s a script that has a few unusual things to say about the Happily Ever After part that other movies neglect to explore. (It’s interesting to note that comedy mega-producer Judd Apatow has been mining the less-often-explored aspects of romance for a while, and that the results are usually worth a look.) While The Five-Year Engagement may not be the ultimate or funniest take on the idea of a very long engagement (somehow, you’d expect bigger, clearer and more unpredictable obstacles), there’s enough left on the table to warrant a look.