Funny People: In Which Sandler and Apatow Don’t Make It to the Altar and No One Laughs or Cries. Part I.

Dear CF,

Your reaction to the Funny People movie poster was eerily prescient. You have powers. Be my psychic? Also, I’d like to point out that James Thurber wrote his autobiography, “My Life and Hard Times,” at 40. As a joke. Would that Apatow’s self-awareness ran so deep when he decided to mount a Career Retrospective at 42.

Instead we get Funny People, an effort to weave Apatow and Sandler’s comedy styles into one movie that both moves and amuses. It’s a threnody on love and loss, on dicks and disease, on the stand-up comedy circuit and the growth that fails to happen there. It’s the story of Sandler’s juvenilia and bad movies. It’s a chronicle of Apatow’s hardships before he made it big, a novella on how Power and Money isolate and how humor isolates even more.  It’s the beaten horse of Rogen’s weight loss (the movie wants us to know that he’s thinner, and that it knows that Jonah Hill is the fat version of Rogen because Rogen used to be fat and now he’s not as fat. Hilarity ensues). It’s a limerick on the hotness of Judd’s wife (she is hot) and the cuteness of his kids (they are cute), a villanelle on Eric Bana as Richard Gere, a sestina of movie and television cliches and a sonnet on how cliched movie cliches are (they are very cliche).  It tried to solve all this by plotting three semi-interesting movies, mashing them into one and resolving none of them.

I left the theater feeling befuddled and a little cheated by the poster, which seems, in retrospect, like a malicious exercise in deceit. In unrelated news, I am completing an Online Sexual Harassment Training and Survey. So, in the spirit of surveys and procrastination, I declare the birth of an informalish poll* for what the movie poster should actually have said (SPOILER ALERT):

Funny People:

  1. A show about a dying guy. Who gets better!!!!
  2. How he found love—and lost it because he inexplicably becomes an uncaring douche when her kid sings a song from CATS. (Yeah, yeah, you didn’t see that coming because he saved her film reel and her jeans and let her dog eat peanut butter off his face and played with the kids. But he checked his phone. He is a jerk and has learned nothing from his brush with the Kind of Cancer that Makes You Tired After a Game of Basketball Or a Brisk Swim.)
  3. How a nice dull man who recently lost weight meets a slightly older and funnier man. No one changes much—but there are twelve standup scenes in which you see them not change much. Also: penises.
  4. An existential look at life, death and unmeaning—not Sandler’s (he’s just a clever decoy) but the ghosts of sometime comedians, their shows and careers. Andy Dick will depress you. Paul Reiser will make you weep. By the time Norm Macdonald shows up you’ll be shotgunning beers. Watch them be dicks to each other and get upstaged by Eminem.
  5. Friendship Is: writing jokes for the dim dude you hired to write jokes for you, after he ruined your shot at your true love by blabbing inappropriate things to her children.
  6. Friendship Is: having inconclusive fights with your roommates who sell out to work on a bad TV show and sleep with the girl you sorta like. But you were an asshole too, and that’s life or something. Also, a slightly older dude in your line of work tells you these are the best years of your life, and not to lose touch with these guys who you kinda hate. So. You know. The end.
  7. ONE-TIME ROOMMATES, LIFETIME RIVALS: The FINAL SHOWDOWN between deposed comedy king Adam Sandler and bromance czar Judd Apatow (played by Rogen) to determine (here’s your twist) Who Gets to Be the Main Character in the Serious Movie?

*Turns out the options, in an unconscious tribute to the film, got way too long (TWSS). So I can’t create a formal poll. However, my vote, with explanations, sequins, and penises, is here.**
**Or, er, will be shortly.



Bromance Vs. Romance: Cross-Dressing For Love

Dear C Fran,

If you love someone, you have to become them. That’s the thesis of Book One of the oldest and oddest bromance I’ve encountered yet, Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia, published in 1590.

It’s a fun read. For one thing, the narrative voice is modern; urbane, sarcastic, and touchingly sensitive to the desires of its characters. (Example: when one of the two bros (Musidorus and Pyrocles) decides to dress up as an Amazon to get access to his lady-love, the  narrator gently helps him into his feminine garb, which is lovingly described, and declares that from now on he’ll refer to Pyrocles as “she”:)

Such was this Amazon’s attire, and thus did Pyrocles become Cleophila, which name for a time hereafter I will use, for I myself feel such compassion of his passion that I find even part of his fear lest his name should be uttered before fit time were for it.

The narrator’s as good as his word. From here on out Pyrocles is called Cleophila, and at one point gets called Musidorus’ “he-she-friend.”

1500s Cross-Dressing 101

Thanks to Shakespeare in Love and its ilk, we all know cross-dressing was pretty common in sixteenth and seventeenth-century plays. Shakespeare-wise you’ve got your Twelfth Night, your As You Like It, your Merchant of Venice. There’s Lyly’s Gallathea, where the ladies dress as men to avoid being offered as sacrificial virgins to Neptune. But the cross-dressing, when it happens, tends to be of the women-dressed-as-men variety. Same goes for Ariosto’s Bradamante in Orlando Furioso and Spenser’s Britomart in the Faerie Queene. In the plays, the big joke was in the inversion: it’s a boy playing a girl dressed as a boy!!! Madness!

There aren’t as many instances of men dressing as women. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Jonson’s Epicoene, The Silent Woman (a bizarre little play where a man gets punished for wanting a silent wife by being set up with Epicene, a man dressed as a woman who nodded mutely throughout their courtship and turned into a loud nag the second they married). And, you know, Achilles. But that was much longer ago.

Anyway, back to Sidney. Pyrocles falls in love with a painting of Philoclea and, his reason infected, starts thinking about her nonstop. Like, all the time. His decision to cross-dress isn’t merely—as is usual—an expedient way of getting access to the beloved, but actually amounts a principled stand on what it means to be love someone of the opposite gender and how one’s imaginative energies might end up going about it.

I mentioned that Slate post by Dahlia Lithwick that speculated that women, because they’re forced to hypothetically occupy a male perspective so often, might be more empathic and therefore “better” judges because they have a greater capacity to inhabit different perspectives. (The boys in the study she cites often refused to even entertain the idea of pretending to think as a girls.)

The idea seems problematic, at least as applied to jurisprudence. But since I’ve been puzzling over empathy generally, one angle of which includes the sexes’ ability to see from each other’s point of view, I wanna take a gander at Sidney’s argument, in which the logical conclusion of falling in love (for a man, with a woman) is to become one.

The Old Arcadia is sort of a sendup of the scholasticism that characterized young men’s education in the 16th century, in the course of which they had to argue pressing issues like whether day was better than night, or which was more important, friendship or love.

Musidorus and Pyrocles are pals. But, once Pyrocles decides he’s in love and dupes Musidorus into hanging out in the vicinity of Philoclea’s house instead of doing the job they’re supposed to be doing, Musidorus keeps trying to talk him back into his senses in a conversation that ends up pissing off Pyrocles and endangering the friendship.

Dude 1: Love Will Make You Girly. Dude 2: BRING IT ON, BITCH.

The tension between friendship and love gets worked out as a bitterish debate over whether women are poopie-heads or not, but the “not” bit takes an interesting turn. Musidorus says, among other things, that Pyrocles’ love will make him womanish:

For, as the love of heaven makes one heavenly, the love of virtue, virtuous, so doth the love of the world make one become worldly, and this effeminate love of a woman doth so womanish a man that if you yield to it, it will not only make you a famous Amazon, but a launder, a distaff spinner, or whatsoever other vile occupation their idle heads can imagine, and their weak hands perform.

To which Pyrocles, leaving aside the question of whether laundry is a “vile occupation,” offers a pretty rational and rhetorically devastating response that’s worth quoting at length:

Dear and worthy friend, whatsoever good disposition nature hath bestowed on me, or howsoever that disposition hath been by bringing-up confirmed, this must I confess, that I am not yet come to that degree of wisdom to think lightly of the sex of whom I have life. Since … I was … born of a woman and nursed of a woman; and certainly (for this point of your speech doth nearest touch me) it is strange to see the unmanlike cruelty of mankind, who, not content with their tyrannous ambition, to have brought the others’ [women’s] virtuous patience under them, like childish masters think their masterhood nothing without doing injury unto them who (if we will argue by reason) are framed of nature with the same parts of the mind for the exercise of virtue, as we are. And for example, even this estate of Amazons (which I now for my greatest honor, do seek to counterfeit) doth well witness that if generally the sweetness of their disposition did not make them see the veins of these things (which we account glorious) they neither want valor of mind, nor yet doth their fairness take away their force. And truly, we men, and praisers of men should remember, that if we have such excellencies, it is reason to think them excellent creatures of whom we are, since a kite never brought forth a good flying hawk.

In which the following points are made:

  1. Bro, your definition of wisdom is bullshit.
  2. The old “How can I hate women? My mum was one!” chestnut bibbled by Chris Finches the world over.
  3. The desire to dominate women is actually unmanlike because it consists of a cruel and childish brand of mastery, where we have to insult that which we control. (Weren’t expecting that, were you?)
  4. Look at the Amazons. They are awesome. I want to be one. Suck on that.
  5. The Amazons show that if women lacked the “sweetness” and vision to see the flaws in war, etc., they’d be (and are) just as capable of our battle hijinks and courage.
  6. [A reprise of the mum argument:] Fine. If you insist on thinking we’re awesome, logically we had to come from something awesome.

Not bad for 1590, eh?

“Gay” Doesn’t Exist Yet. Choose A) Narcissus Or B) Pygmalion

Pyrocles changes his name to Cleophila—Philoclea’s name in reverse (mirror image ahoy!), and dresses up as an Amazon, even showing a little leg through the cutouts in the leather buskins (boots) which “in some places open … show the fairness of the skin.” He—or, as the narrator rightly reminds us, she—wears a mantle fastened by a jewel with the following insignia:

an eagle covered with the feathers of a dove, and yet lying under another dove, in such sort as it seemed the dove preyed upon the eagle, the eagle casting up such a look as though the state he was in, liked him, though the pain grieved him.

For starters, what exactly is this visual asking us to imagine? How do you depict an eagle dressed in a dove’s feathers? How detailed was this insignia? Are eagle and dove feathers that different? Wouldn’t this just look like an eagle with a bad haircut? It may look like dove-on-dove love, or dove-on-dove S&M… the point is, whatever the impossible visual might be, we’re being asked to imagine a painful and pleasurable effort to achieve sameness.

Musidorus, seeing his friend in full Amazon regalia, finds in him such “excellent beauty” that he says

Well, sweet cousin … I pray you take heed of looking yourself in a glass, lest Narcissus’ fortune fall unto you. For my part, I promise you, if I were not full resolved never to submit my heart to those fancies, I were like enough, while I dressed you, to become a young Pygmalion.”

In a culture where homosexuality (cue Foucault) doesn’t exist yet as a category, we get Narcissus—self-love, love of sameness—and Pygmalion (the Cyprian king who made a woman out of ivory and pined for love of her until Venus made her real)—love of a statue, or of one’s own creation. (Or perhaps, of a painting, since so far Cleophila has only seen Philoclea’s portrait.)

To which Cleophila (now named thusly in the text) says, in this strange little scene:

“Speak not that blasphemy, dear friend … for if I have any beauty, it is the beauty which the imagination of her strikes into my fancies, which in part shines through my face into your eyes.”

In other words, so good is Cleophila’s imitation of Philoclea through imaginative effort alone that Musidorus, who loves Cleophila (nee Pyrocles) as all bros love each other, is in fact vicariously experiencing Philoclea’s beauty.

Poor Cleophila then wanders through to the desert near Philoclea’s house reciting a poem that begins thusly:

Transformed in show, but more transformed in mind,

I cease to strive, with double conquest foiled;

For, woe is me, my powers all, I find,

With outward force and inward treason spoiled.

What marvel then I take a woman’s hue?

Since what I see, think, know, is all but you?

I don’t know that I’ve ever, in all the romances I’ve ever seen or read, encountered this argument expressed in quite this way. Tootsie might be closest thing, but the knowledge gained was really a happy side effect, not a rational imperative.

Bromance-wise, Musidorus falls in love with Philoclea’s sister Pamela, recants all his earlier claims to reason, but doesn’t follow Cleophila. Instead of trading gender he trades class and dresses up as a lowly shepherd. Cleophila saves Philoclea from a male lion, Musidorus (now Dorus) saves Pamela from a she-bear. Neither bro notices what happens to the other, so taken up are they with saving their lady loves. Book One ends there, with the bros sharply divided not just by love and class but also by gender, even down to the sexes of the beasts they kill.

In the usual formulation it’s one thing to think about someone and quite another to think as someone.  Cleophila equates the two and in so doing drastically rewrites the marital ideal of  “two-becoming-one” in which the ideal isn’t complementarity, it’s mimesis. Conversely, the minute Musidorus tells Pyrocles he would (if he were otherwise) be in danger of becoming Pygmalion, he’s gone from thinking as Pyrocles to thinking about him. Our bromance is in crisis.

In thus abandoning his bro, Pyrocles is manfully (heh) struggling to achieve, not the averaging out of usually gendered qualities that result in a common mean, but in a really concrete (and rather painfully effected) equality, with equality, here, defined as sameness. This all seems a little batty, but also sort of contemporary, no?



If There’s a Tiger…I Give

Dear Millicent,

Kudos on your garbage! Yellow gingham and wicker: so cheery, so kempt! Also, THANK YOU for the spectacle of costuming featured below.  That green boob flash is one of those moments when I realize that, like storytelling, there maybe a finite number of ways to cut a cloth, but also an infinite chance of surprise.

Speaking of expected and unexpected patterns, I saw The Hangover last night after giggling at it’s baby in sunglasses billboard for weeks.  While Jezebel and others have lamented that this movie is one more bromance-o-rama/grossout/ roadtrip-find-ourselves production (I think Jez has taken to calling it Three Men and a Baby), I was holding my breath because of the inclusion of Zach Galifianakis and his distillation of spectacle mired in the slack human condition.  He seems to understand the glee and anger in life, and convey the ambiguous intersections of mediocrity and truth with something that isn’t quite irony.  His music videos capture this in their lighting, unmade beds, leaps, belly and old sedans. His exuberance is authentic, and rarely watered down.  I also think he probably punches people sometimes when he is drunk.

And he brings this charm to the movie, complete with unflattering pants and ace timing.  There were times where his sense of humor, his enjoyment of the joke, was strong enough to entice me further into the movie.  And yes, it is a boy movie…I wonder how far off the original script was from that of the Tom Hanks 1984 hit The Bachelor Party.    But, I laughed a lot.  There are songs, there are tigers, there are jokes about gremlins.  Las Vegas is introduced during the title sequence as a doomscape, with the Bellagio fountain roaring like a harbinger of obliteration.  It’s fantastic.  And, like I Love You, Man, the movie is supremely plot lite– –something that I have come to immensely appreciate lately.  The tensions are never actually fretful, and the drama is always outrageous or simple enough to relax me into a state of easy merriment.  As a kid, I used to get worked up with every Disney movie, Lady in the Tramp especially, because they raised the stakes so quickly to employ the drama.  It all starts as fine, but then all of sudden Lady is on the street, Ariel has lost her voice and her home, Pinocchio has that terrifying island: there was a lot of stress to get the payoff of catharsis and happy fable.  Not here– — happy fable is ensured, and the only stress in the audience is of will the humor keep up, will the script hold up until the end.  And with that, the story is weak, Heather Graham is under-used, there is a confusing breast feeding scene, and one character gets a fast change of step with no explanation.  But, my face hurt at the end because I had been laughing so much.

This brings me back to our discussion about the bromance genre.  I don’t hate it, and I tend to eat it up.  BUT, the ladies are always on the side.  Here there are four women in the movie, and while the men are weird and complicated with specific motivations, the women are flatter than flat: bitchy controlling girlfriend, beautiful responsible fiance, hooker with heart of gold, and large bottomed public servant.  That’s it.

I talked with Mr. Carla Fran on the way home about what a lady version could be…is Thelma and Louise one of the few that allowed this? And if there could be a Ladypash or homance (I like this new name even better than cronemance, but I know it can’t stand)  that was plot lite while still being three dimensional?  The show Girlfriends tried this with uneven results, and Sex in the City was often too busy connecting giant life themes to ever really let its hair down.  All other lady comedies swerve towards public service announcements (and I agree, domestic violence is bad), or chintzy sapfests. Why can only men have unvirtous adventures for the sake of shenanigans and general fuckuppery in film? While there are many people who are above that, not all of those people are women.

And luckily, there is a straight to DVD movie to prove it.  Via Women in Hollywood, I found out about Spring Breakdown, which looks like the exact thing I’m looking for, albeit with cheap production and a fairly hammy script. I haven’t seen it yet, but my fingers are crossed that it’s the start of something good.   Karina Longworth gave this enticing review from Sundance:

I suppose it’s possible to laugh at/with Spring Breakdown as gross out comedy without taking it too seriously, but throughout I could sense there was also some really interesting stuff roiling underneath the top level, without being quite able to put my finger on it until near the end. And then I realized: Spring Breakdown is a parody of Sex and the City-style media, which depict 40-something women as sex and image obsessed to the point where they might as well be adolescents, but the film enacts that parody by aping the Fight Club model. Having hit bottom by being “themselves,” with nothing left to lose, these three ladies embrace the fact that, in a time and place where there are no constraints, to be “normal” in America is to go to extremes, even if that means being extremely self-destructive. They dive deep into a nihilistic subculture of masochistic thrill seeking. Eventually, they realize that this is not the answer to their woes. But not until it’s too late to stop everything from exploding.

The movie doesn’t exactly look good, and it was released straight to DVD, which is sad, but American Pie and There’s Something About Mary all now seem crudely worked starts of this new brand of sensitive-gross-out-man humor, so maybe, this can be that?

I hope to see Up soon, and then chat with you about it, as well as Away We Go, which looks both immensely charming and highly unpalatable (mostly I think because husband and wife Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida wrote it together from notes on their own pregnancy…and named their main characters Burt and Verona (Dave and Vendela, meet Burt and Verona).  We shall see if they can charm me or back me further into my little cranky corner.

Summer, I want to spend you in the dark theater drinking soda.



I Love You, Three Dimensional Well Written Character

Dear Millicent,

I am trying to find a phrase for the female bromance, and am not having much luck: sismance (sounds like a goiter), ladymance (sounds like a medieval weapon), cronemance (I kind of like this, but it makes me think Dune), girlcrush, or the brit term for falling in love at boarding school — –‘having a pash’?

I ask this because I just saw I Love You, Man, a title bromance, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (a supreme Netflix wonder). I was smitten with ILYM’s lack of difficulty: it is plot-lite, where even the climax is not very threatening or stressful.  I smiled at Paul Rudd throughout, and savored such lines as Jon Favreau offhandedly ordering a drink for wife, “and something with sour mix for her,” and Rudd’s father staidly announcing that his best friend is one of his sons in front of the other son.   But, the movie’s thesis is that women are friendship-a-matics: they instinctively klatch up and and share and support, while men have a hard time letting their hair down.  As Paul Rudd ventures to find friends, he encounters men wanting to date him or steal his clients, or geeks that are even less cool than he is.  His girlfriend enters the movie with a complete girl talk brigade with requisite bitch and ditz as besties.  Ladies have “girl’s nights” and drink wine.  They can sleep at each other’s houses and own boutiques together.  This doesn’t seem untrue, as much as one dimensional.

When he does meet his soul friend, they have quite the pash.  And it’s got all its dimensions.  They tell each other secrets, they support each other’s dreams, they make each other grow. The movie plays easy, so they have tilted the scales to make a more compact and satisfying formulaic tale.  The ladies have to be flat characters to foil the round joy of Rudd’s character arc with his manfriend.

But, isn’t the bromance really the story of all friendships? Doesn’t the post-college adult often flounder in isolation and miss the days where friendship was less homegenous, but very much enforced? In school there is required recess, and then the caste navigation of high school, and then dormmates and so on. Then we are released to the unwild, where people are no longer grouped by age or interest, and the world is lonelier.  Gyms and video stores and bars become the great chances of interaction.  I fuss not because ILYM is an inept representation of the difficulties of finding likeminded people, but because it’s like that way for everybody.  Women might say “I love you” to their pash a little earlier in the game, but otherwise same gauntlet.  And this is my nitpick with the Bromance/Apatow genre: it showcases its men with amazing dimensions of complexity, tenderness and contradiction and that is supposed to be the trick.  The ladies are supposed to have all of this stuff figured out, and as the men grapple and learn, we are all inclined to melt and appreciate the wit and humanity presented.  And, I usually do just that; as a critic, I am a worthless sop in the audience–I enjoy all of it.

Which brings me to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, where I lost the bet that Kris Kristofferson would wear jeans in every scene (he wears white pants, once! The rest, denim all the way).  This move explained a few things to me:

  1. Why, while growing up in Tucson, people often referred to this movie and Jodi Foster’s amazing quote “he’s even weird for Tucson, and Tucson is the capital of weird.”
  2. A parenting trend that might have influenced my parents: in the movie Alice is a single mother that talks to her precocious 12 year old like he is fully grown.  He is very astute (and could walk straight into a Wes Anderson movie), and mom makes cracks about her sex life or trouble paying the bills and then tells him to finish his dinner.  They have a loving relationship.  I wonder if divorced parents at the time, hoping to have an equally savvy and well-bonded relationship with their kids, tried to be the brassy, worldly honest type, not realizing that their own lines (and their kids) were not written in a script where the outcome is ultimately a happy one.
  3. Harvey Keitel was once a very young man.

And, we have Alice, played by Ellen Burstyn, as a successfully three dimensional lady on film.  My shock in watching the movie was how long it had been since I had seen that kind of complexity organically presented.  The movie is astounding in its motivations–every plot point has a very believable and fairly subtle reason for happening.  I have some issues with the ending–if you watch it, we must discuss–but overall, it’s a witty and complete portrait.  And, there is a gal pash, or rather, a tribute to the importance of the pash.  As Alice leaves town after her husband’s death, she and her friend have compelling goodbye scene where they both acknowledge how much they will miss each other (again, amazingly natural and heartfelt), and then later, this same friend is mentioned as Alice and Flo sunbathe in Tucson.  They have just become a united front, and Alice leans back, eyes closed to the sun and says “I forgot how good it is to talk to someone.”  The viewer feels how good these women feel in this moment.  It’s great.  I love the assumption of the movie that nobody has anything figured out, and practically every character is  their own little motor chugging through the world.

If the bromance/Apatow set , or a new think tank of entertainment, could take that kind of formula on, I’d be delighted.  I keep thinking there must be a female version of Peep Show, and all the Apatow gross-out/sentiment fests, and Juno isn’t quite it.

I love you, lady,