Saturday, March 13, 2010

Frights (The House of the Devil and Funny People)


It surprises me to read descriptions of Ti West's The House of the Devil as a throwback to 1980s horror flicks. The movie takes place in that decade, before owning a cell phone would have made things easier for college undergrad Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) to escape the dark rural estate owned by the creepily friendly Ulmans (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), who have paid her handsomely to babysit under increasingly dubious circumstances that seem to revolve around a midnight eclipse. But the film has little to do with the gory slasher pics from that era and more in common with the deliberate pacing and psychological punishment of late-60s/early-70s Carpenter, De Palma and Polanski. The opening hour is filled with so many long silences you can feel the director reprogramming your response system: even in a pivotal scene when you expect to jump -- involving Samantha's gal-pal Megan (acidly funny Greta Gerwig, soon to be seen in the unaborted Noah Baumbach's Greenberg), the editing rhythms are fiddled with just enough to catch you with your guard down.

West's sense of period detail (a walkman with audiotapes) and character (Samantha's holes in her jeans underlining her financial desperation) are first-rate, and he's good with actors: that wonderful weirdo Noonan is introduced with chest-level framing, the camera eventually panning up as if he were a giant oak. He lacks humor though, which The House of the Devil could use as it enters its absurd and bloody final act. There's ultimately not much to the movie, but it may be worth seeing for bigger fans of the genre than me, or to witness what may be the start of a promising filmmaker's career.
I've been running out of excuses to admire Judd Apatow (yes, I still enjoy Walk Hard), and now with Funny People I'm left with no choice but to turn against him. A comedy is always in trouble whenever its characters keep telling each other how hilarious they are, which is the through-line of all conversations between famous comic actor George Simmons (Adam Sandler) and sycophantic wannabe Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). When George learns he's dying of leukemia (don't worry, he gets better), he returns to his roots as a standup comedian by enlisting Ira as jokewriter. Problem is, Ira's jokes aren't funny; nor do his or George's stage performances derive from the kind of hardbitten life experiences that are the soul of great standup.

A repellent air of entitlement has seeped into Apatow's work. Self-congratulatory celebrity cameos really pile up in Funny People, and by the time George attempts to win back now-married love-of-his-life Laura (Leslie Mann), the director's former empathy for "regular people" devolves into clueless condescension. Amusing moments that pop up -- a superhumanly tolerant German physician (Torsten Voges), Jason Schwartzman's appearances in the cheesy sitcom Yo, Teach! -- are watered down by a 150-minute running-time that doesn't layer its themes or gather momentum. Rogen is miscast in the wide-eyed, fidgety Gene Wilder role; Sandler's persona was deconstructed much more intriguingly in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love. Neither actor, individually or together, makes a good alter-ego for Apatow, who's sincerely trying to explore his recurring concern -- the price of fame on family -- but lacks enough of a self-critical perspective to do it justice. (He also, yet again, shows a baffling lack of understanding or interest in women for the man who helped create the indomitable Lindsay Weir in Freaks and Geeks.) He's become like Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, gazing so far into his navel he can't get out.


Tom Shone said...

The other bad sign is when the New Yorker calls a Judd Apatow comedy a "masterpiece." Translation: one of the unfunny ones.

Craig said...

Yeah, David Denby is a surprisingly avid Apatow fan.