I’ve got this feeling that Adam Sandler is well on his way to being a Jerry Lewis figure in the realm of cinematic studies. Like Lewis, who was once maligned and pooh-poohed, a time will come when he his filmography is regarded as genius by a segment of the serious critical community. I’m not a member of the serious critical community, and I don’t quite regard Sandler’s body of work as entirely genius yet. He’s got some clear shining lights, though, Happy Gilmore, Punch-Drunk Love and The Wedding Singer stand out from some of the rote ridiculousness that’s padded his income for much of the last decade. Maybe this barrage of ridiculousness was one of the reasons that Funny People was not an out of the ballpark hit. Was there any reason, after Click, to want to see a new Adam Sandler movie?
How about a movie about a new Adam Sandler? The pathos of Funny People is the proximity of the aging and obscenely rich comedian George Simmons (Sandler) to the life that Sandler would appear to be living. This meta-narrative, or subtext, or what have you, gives this film an extra heft that is far beyond anything I’ve seen Sandler do before. It’s easy to say that he brought much of himself to the role, that’s not fair, but what he did certainly bring was a sensitivity for performance and the desire to deliver something which cuts toward his industry a bit more than his audience may be used to. Maybe this film is The Player for the world of comedy entertainment, and it wouldn’t be out of place on a double-bill with The Great Buck Howard or The Wrestler.
The roll-call of known comedy stars ads much credibility to the view of entertainment which is framed by this film. So, is it a confession? I can’t say, but there is something terribly honest in the tired, shadowed eyes of Sandler, and the asshole-speak of high-powered Hollywood is delivered with perfection throughout.
Produced, written and directed by nineties-uber-hyphante-turned-oughts-powerhouse Judd Apatow (Talladega Nights, Superbad, Knocked-Up, Pineapple Express), it’s heavy (like a hearty soup) with a honesty about show business that is rarely seen in “it’s so hard to be famous” stories typical of the sub-genre.
I suppose what is most compelling about this film is the way it makes the bland clichés about humor come to vivid life. Yes, comedy is tragedy (and horror). Yes, laughter is often fuelled by deep grief or loss, and often the most celebrated star is the loneliest person in the room. In this film, in many different ways, the truth of these clichés is demonstrated in a living way. Whether it’s a trashed Sarah Silverman bemoaning the cold facts of sex, or the “normal” woman who is not at all amused by Simmon’s holocaust joke, or the brilliant scene where Simmon’s abrasive mockery of his doctor moves from being awkward and sad to a perfect demonstration of the release that poignant comedy can deliver.
Of course, Sacha Baron Cohen has gotten awkward comedy to be part of his brand. With Bruno, he moves from ambiguously difficult comedy like Borat to a more aggressive kind of comedy which far outpaces anything Michael Moore has done in either funny or documentary. Sacha Baron Cohen is now much closer to the classic role of a jester which mocks the king who pays him, or, to get a little lofty, the Shakespeare thing about “the play’s the thing.” As ridiculous and sad as Bruno may be, it’s clear early on in the film that he isn’t the most ridiculous and downright pathetic person we will see on the screen.
While the flapping phalli and assortment of sex toys and devices drive much of the obvious humor, they also serve to shock the viewer into a sort of badgered alertness. Like horror films which let you know that all bets are off, these shocks serve to not only entertain through surprise but through the implied message that the filmmakers are going to take you somewhere you may not be prepared to go. In the end, the most troubling thing about Bruno may not be the dildo biking machine or the horrible close-ups of his crotch during his pilot tv show, but the fact he got an interview with a terrorist leader, several high-ranking figures on both sides of the Israeli-Palenstinian crisis, and Ron Paul.
Of course, the obvious analysis of Bruno is that it challenges the pervasiveness and acceptance of homophobia through the world by drawing out the ridiculous attitudes many hold about homosexuals. Deeper though, is the brilliant manner in which Sacha Baron Cohen, as Bruno, uses the “issue” of being a flamboyantly gay man to expose the bottomless vapidity of celebrity worship, “reality” cruelty as entertainment; and in meta-narrative, how the vagaries of what shocks and what is fashionable turn and turn, perhaps full of fury, but ultimately signifying nothing.
That is really funny.