'Funny People': The Problem Of Creating Fictional Works Of Staggering Genius : Monkey See Judd Apatow's new film Funny People places him on the horns of a classic problem in making movies about creative people: the product had better be as good as you claim it is.
NPR logo 'Funny People': The Problem Of Creating Fictional Works Of Staggering Genius

'Funny People': The Problem Of Creating Fictional Works Of Staggering Genius

Adam Sandler performs a stand-up routine as George Simmons in Judd Apatow's new film, Funny People. Universal Pictures hide caption

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Universal Pictures

Funny People comes out tomorrow, and I have to admit, I'm worried.

It has nothing to do with it being a Judd Apatow movie; the guy may have lent his name to some questionable projects (Year One, anybody?), but the things that are definitively his — TV shows Freaks And Geeks and Undeclared, and movies The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up — are all good-to-great. And it has nothing to do with it being an Adam Sandler movie, since Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love showed what he can do when not left unchecked.

No, what has me nervous is right there in the title. It's a movie that's about people who make a living being funny and who are presented in the very act of funny-being. That means that the characters have to...you know, be funny.

And that could be tricky. It's the fundamental tightrope walk for any film about the creative process, in whatever field. For it to work, those of us in the audience on this side of the screen usually have to agree with the audience on that side of the screen (or, at the very least, we have to buy into the notion that the fictional audience might plausibly respond as they do).

The problem is, we've been burned too often.

The Mr. Holland's Opus problem, and how Prince went the other way, after the jump...

We've seen far too many movies (and, in the case of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, at least one television show) where we're supposed to believe that one or more of the characters is a great stand-up comic, or musician, or filmmaker, or what have you, when none of the evidence on the screen remotely suggests greatness.

Call it the Mr. Holland's Opus problem. In that 1995 movie, if you'll recall, Richard Dreyfuss played a man who dreamed of being a serious composer but took a job as a music teacher to make ends meet. Throughout the movie, he's shown working on a composition over the course of decades, and when he finally has the opportunity to show off his life's work...well, this happens (starting at about the seven-minute mark in the clip):

The entire movie is riding on this one moment, the final reveal of the artist's work, and that work turns out to be a hacky, quasi-New Age mixing of Aaron Copland and symphonic rock instrumentation. (What it sounds like, in fact, is a film score.) It strains for emotional climax and falls resolutely flat. But that's not what we see. We see Mr. Holland's audience, and that audience loves it, is taken on a profound emotional journey by it, and can't resist jumping to its feet.

That disconnect has been the downfall of plenty of other films. Rent ends with filmmaker Mark finally showing his finished project, which is a chaotic jumble that looks like it was shot using a home-movie camera from the 1950s. In Reality Bites, Lelaina suffered the same problem to such an extent that Roger Ebert reviewed her allegedly artful documentary and counted it against Reality Bites itself (calling the footage "something that might have been obtained by the Monkeycam on the Letterman program").

More specifically in the arena of comedy, there's Punchline, where Tom Hanks plays a stand-up comic who finally stops messing around and reaches his potential. The final scene shows him slaying an audience (some of whom can barely breathe, they're laughing so hard) with a routine that doesn't work on this side of the screen. It doesn't work at all. It's as though the filmmakers hoped that they could nudge us into thinking he was brilliantly talented by supplying their own laugh track and then hoping we went with the flow.

There are exceptions, of course, where the product is just as good as it's said to be, or at least is good in the same way it's said to be. Once and That Thing You Do! come to mind, though both neatly sidestep the issue by ignoring the audience entirely or treating the hysteria as overblown to begin with.

And Purple Rain reverses the problem: when the Kid finally has to decide once and for all whether to live in a state of arrested development or put his past behind him to actually reveal something of substance in his music, the movie has been so preposterous that the only way the ending can possibly work is if he steps on stage and begins playing one of the greatest songs ever written. Which is precisely when he launches into "Purple Rain." Point: Prince.

Still, the track record with this sort of thing is daunting, which means that it's reasonable to come to Funny People with a healthy dose of concern. Apatow is capable of writing a story that is both funny and moving, and his own experience as a stand-up comedian suggests that he knows how to navigate that sort of material as well. But it's a difficult task to successfully write both at once. And if the titular people aren't so funny, then it might not matter how strong the rest of the script and performances are.