His project is deeply personal and intriguingly abstract, a bittersweet vision of a comedian’s mournful existence. Apatow’s central question is this: does an art built on antagonism towards humanity distort the souls of its practitioners? Apatow weaves his obsessions around this theme, including gender mis-communication, male insecurity, elaborate dick jokes, and the unique rhythms of comedy writing. He cast his wife, Leslie Mann, his children, Maude and Iris, and his former roommate, Adam Sandler, as the star. It feels like everything Apatow knows and loves appears in this movie, a testament to comedy and family. This intense engagement leads to an extended running time (over 140 minutes) and occasional longueurs, especially in the distended final act, but it is also what lends it such strength of feeling. Its imperfection is a virtue.
The film opens with an actual home movie from Sandler and Apatow’s days as roommates. Sandler is prank calling a local deli in the wobbly falsetto he made famous in his SNL days, harassing the owner about the gaseous implications of their roast beef sandwiches. Then Apatow fades to Sandler’s present day character, George Simmons, as he wakes up in his palatial estate. Simmons made his money with hugely successful family fare like Merman, My Best Friend is a Robot, and Re-do, where his head is CGI’d onto a baby. These brilliantly hokey concepts, seen briefly on posters and painfully funny video clips, intimate a career fraught with compromise.
There don’t seem to be any Punch Drunk Love‘s in his career, nor anything as sophomorically funny as Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore. It’s a caricatured version of the Sandler man-child persona, drained of menace, and he plays it with hangdog imperturbability. In a brief note on his New Yorker blog, Richard Brody notes that Sandler has “the solidity, the opacity of earlier generations of actors”, and I think that’s an acute observation. Sandler lets his jowls do most of the emoting, with his slightly hunched posture indicating his physical deterioration. He never telegraphs an emotion, waiting a few beats before tilting his head or exploding in short fits of anger. His sadness is overwhelming. And this is before he gets sick.
The hook, as given away in the trailer, is the news that he is afflicted with a rare form of leukemia, and that he has six months to live. This leads to the first stand-up set-piece, where he meets Seth Rogen’s character, Ira Wright, his soon to be shat upon assistant. Brooding and aimless, George books himself at the local improv club, bumping Ira to the slot after him. In a rambling monologue, George mumbles angrily about death and quietude, letting the room sit as silent as possible, challenging the audience to question his dominion.
Apatow and DP Janusz Kaminski set up these scenes in generous long shots that track back and forth, to establish the connection between audience and performer, and to avoid the airlessness of shooting inserts in the studio later. In an interview at the Museum of the Moving Image, Apatow said he stole this documentary aesthetic from Bruce Surtees’s work on Bob Fosse’s Lenny, the bio-pic about Lenny Bruce. These scenes are stylistically riveting, displaying the unique frisson between performer and rapt audience, the feel of working without a net. I generally prefer the locked-down camera style of Knocked Up and 40-Year-Old Virgin, whereas Kaminski opts for constant motion, subtle tracks and push-ins that only distract from the rest of the action. But this is a minor quibble.
After Ira makes cracks about George’s impending suicide in the next set, he gets hired for his ballsiness to act as psychologist and mother to this disintegrating celebrity. Ira talks him to sleep, sets up play-dates with former friends and family (George seems closer to Andy Dick than to his sister), and writes material for his act. George is a low-key monster, incredibly needy and impulsive, whose rage drives his comedy and ruin his relationships, including one with Laura (Leslie Mann), the woman that got away. His ability to distract people from this self-centeredness with his volcanic, sophomoric wit comes to the fore in the fascinating scenes where George and Ira collaborate on constructing jokes, shooting ideas back and forth in looping arcs of absurdity. Apatow told Jake Tapper of ABC that he wrote hundreds of jokes for these scenes, and then Sandler and Rogen would riff off of them on their own, recreating the one-upsmanship at the heart of the process.
Ira’s character is especially ambitious because of his own roommates, Jason Schwartzman’s supercilious TV-sitcom star Mark Taylor Jackson, and Jonah Hill’s acerbic stand-up Leo. Their interactions display Apatow’s gift for musical vulgarity and parades of insecurity. Mark is defensive about his low-level celebrity and cringingly earnest show (“Do you guys know who the greatest rapper of all time is? William Shakespeare!”), Leo about his plateauing career, and Ira about his non-existent one. Ira is forced to cut meat at a local grocery store with RZA (in a delightfully dour performance), before George stumbles into the club and plucks him into Hollywood. It’s tempting to see the three worlds of the film (George’s, Ira’s, and Laura’s) as separate aspects of Apatow’s own life, the professional success, the striving youngster, and the family man. The film is a kind of simultaneous autobiography, all three periods of his life colliding at once in the midst of the narrative of comic self-destruction.
The final act is where these three worlds resolve themselves, in Laura’s home in Northern California. With George beginning to accept his mortality, accepting the judgments of his family and friends in order to savor a few more moments of intimacy, he learns that the experimental medicine he was prescribed is working. He will live. Slowly all of his neuroses start to creep back, all of them directed at regaining Laura’s love. In mock gallant mode, he places all of his hopes of happiness in this one ex-actress (Leslie Mann’s real acting reel acts as nostalgic flirtation fodder). Apatow does not fall for easy sentiment here, fully exposing the selfishness of George’s game. He expects happiness to follow him immediately upon his survival, as if it were due him, despite all the fuck ups of his previous life. Apologizing is akin to absolution in his mind, regardless if his actions remain the same. So this extended final act displays an epic meltdown, constructing his false hopes before tearing them down in the face of Laura’s preference for a stable relationship. It leads to her husband’s angry return, and Eric Bana plays the cuckolded Australian gent with outsized fervor.
This section is admittedly uneven, as Apatow is far more adept at sparring dialogue than elegant bedroom farce, but it abounds in grace notes. The brief montage of George testing (and failing) himself in a fatherly role, Apatow’s girls asking if their parents are divorcing (his real-life parents split when he was a child), and the sobering brutality of George’s ultimate comeuppance add up to a poison-pen portrait of celebrity immaturity. Their struggle to adapt themselves to the world is a work-in-progress, but their continual humbling, Apatow suggests, might one day suit them for more adult relationships. But if they do grow up, will they still be funny? If Apatow is any example, the answer is yes.