Friday, October 30, 2009

Movie Review: Funny People (2009)

Funny People

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Things are not at all funny in Judd Apatow's latest movie, Funny People. And they are not meant to be. Funny People is a very serious film and those who go to see it thinking it is a comedy will be very disappointed.

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a successful standup comedian when he is diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia that is untreatable except for an experimental drug regime that has a very low success rate. It means he has less than a year to live.

During a show at a comedy club, George gives a very bleak performance that is not well received. Following him, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling up-and-coming standup comedian, gives a performance in which he scathingly comments on George's preceding act.

George hears the act and decides to employ Ira to write for George and to perform as his personal assistant and general gopher. Ira's world is very different to the successful George's. Ira lives with two other guys in a small apartment and he sleeps on a foldout bed in the living area. He is envious of the apparent success of his flat mates and is struggling financially. As he enters into George's world he is overawed by George's marks of success — money, women, belongings — everything and anything he wants.

As Ira adapts to being part of George's world, his wide-eyed wonder and innocence begin to challenge George as George tries to come to grips with his imminent death. On the way, George begins to confront the superficiality, loneliness, and despair of his life.

Funny People is a profound examination of a whole range of themes — death, happiness, friendship, materialism, celebrity fame, marriage, and much more. Apatow has packed into the 146 minutes of this story as many subplots and themes as he could — many of these could make full narratives in their own right.

Adam Sandler is excellent as the troubled celebrity and Seth Rogen plays his role with innocent subtlety. Sandler and Rogen work extremely well together and the narrative moves along.

Because Funny People is about the world of contemporary standup comedy, it is stuffed with coarse language, sexual references, and other confronting adult material. But this material almost seems a desperate counter to a life of desperation.

As I have said, Funny People is not a comedy. It would be better described as a drama with humour. It is very deep and offers lots of material to think about. The resolution at the climax of the movie is mixed and no easy answers are offered to the question of what gives life meaning. But there are hints. We, as viewers, are respected enough not to be given a trite  conclusion — at least not for all the characters.

I had read an interview with Judd Apatow where he said he wanted to make a serious movie. He has. So be warned. Don't go to see a comedy. Go if you want to be confronted with some serious questions about life and, in particular, think about where  and how you find your happiness.


Content Advice
Coarse language and crude sexual humour throughout, and some sexuality

Positive Review
'Funny People is a true brass ring effort, a reach for excellence that takes big risks. It's 146 minutes, with a story that's more European in feeling than American.' - Mick La Salle/San Francisco Chronicle

Negative Review
'The denizens of Judd Apatow’s Funny People have been pulled every which way to fit a misshapen concept, yet they remain painfully unfunny, and consistently off-putting.' - Joe Morgenstern/Wall Street Journal

AUS: MA15+

Friday, October 23, 2009

Movie Review: Ben X (2007)

benxBen X brings autism and online gaming together in a deeply disturbing and profound story.

Ben (Greg Timmermans) is very different to his peers at school and is constantly bullied and harassed. He copes with the daily trauma of his existence by retreating into the online gaming world of Archlord (an actual online game). In the game, he can be anything he wants to be and has developed an online friendship with Scarlite who inspires him to heroic deeds. The real and online worlds begin to merge as he overlays the world of Archlord onto his home and school life, allowing his identification with his computer avatar to bolster his courage and deal with the constant pain of relationships in which he finds it impossible to relate to others.

Finally, life becomes so unbearable for Ben that he develops a plan to end his life. But Scarlite, his online female friend, meets him and they strike up a friendship that changes Ben's life in a way he never imagined.

Ben X is a stunning, powerful story inspired by true events. Timmermans is brilliant playing the troubled, autistic teen. The rest of the cast support his portrayal with excellent performances. The representation of the online gaming world of Archlord is very effective and, even if one is not familiar with online gaming, it is easy to follow and all the information we need is provided. The integration of the two worlds in Ben's experience is done very well and we get a profound sense of the importance of the virtual world in helping Ben cope with his real world — although for Ben, the distinction between the two becomes very blurred.

Ben X was Belgium's official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 80th Annual Academy Awards.

Ben X is, at times, very painful to watch as we enter into the experience of autism with Ben. But it is a deeply provocative story that should help us think about the pain that those who are different often suffer in our society. Ben X is available on DVD.



Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis

When I was young, I remember singing a bright chorus by Ira F Stanphill:

Happiness is to know the Savior, Living a life within His favor, Having a change in my behavior, Happiness is the Lord.

Unfortunately, happiness is not quite that simple according to Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the Test of Modern Science.

Although I have been a Christian all my life, I suffered for about 10 years with a major depressive illness despite my attempts to deal with it by eating better, exercising more, affirming my relationship with God, praying more, doing more Bible study, in short, trying to 'live a life within His favor, [and h]aving a change in my behavior'. Finally, after trying the three approaches to improving mood proven to have a definite effect (meditation, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and medication) medication helped. And I am not alone. Many Christians suffer from depression. Shouldn't Christians be happy? Doesn't a faith in God improve the way we feel? Well... maybe it does. But happiness is much more than just what we believe or put faith in.

Drawing on research-based evidence, Haidt draws apart the curtains shrouding happiness and provides some extremely helpful insights into what makes people happy; how happiness works; and what aspects of human nature and life improves the prospect of experiencing happiness. As the author discusses the evidence, he evaluates ancient wisdom and philosophy to see whether these two sources of wisdom got it right. Unsurprisingly, the answer is sometimes right and wrong.

It turns out, there is a Happiness Formula:

H(appiness) = (S)etpoint + (C)onditions + (V)oluntary activities

The Setpoint is the maximum amount of happiness possible for a particular person to experience. It appears that each of us is hardwired with a maximum threshold for experiencing happiness. There is increasing evidence that genetics plays a highly influential role in the boundaries of our emotional lives.

In addition to a setpoint, the Conditions of your live within which we live — the environment, finances, weather, etc —has an effect on happiness.

Finally, the Voluntary activities we choose to engage in (or not) have an influence on levels of happiness. So happiness is a combination of all these elements.

Haidt discusses each of these elements of happiness and provides some fascinating research in support of his Happiness Hypothesis. He weaves an understanding of all of these elements of happiness in a very engaging, easy-to-read, informative style. This discussion of happiness is hopeful, practical, evidence-based, and ultimately provides the reader with an understanding that is balanced and insightful. Highly recommended.