Funny People and Genre: An Unhappy Couple

In his review of Funny People, John claims that “this is certainly Apatow’s most serious/least funny movie. As the name of the film implies, Funny People is more interested in showing funny people than being funny.” John’s right: Funny People does not fit into the traditional mold of the Apatow comedy or the traditional mold of comedy more generally. The advertising campaign for Funny People sends mixed signals: On the one hand, the trailer and the website emphasize the fact that this comes from the writer/director of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up (two definite comedies), but on the other hand the trailer is backed by music by the Postal Service, certainly an indicator of drama. Apatow’s declaration that “I’m trying to make a very serious movie that is twice as funny as my other movies. Wish me Luck!” certainly doesn’t help to settle the drama/comedy distinction.

Does this even matter? Who cares how the movie is billed? Why don’t we just watch the movie and decide for ourselves? Ideally, this would be the case. Nevertheless, expectations matter. We generally hold movies we perceive as comedies to different standards than movies we perceive as dramas. A comedy is supposed to make us laugh and need not have complex characters and plot development (see my review of Bruno for an example of this). John, for instance, recognizes the characters in Apatow’s other films are pretty conventional and undeveloped but partially because of the films’ comedic genre, this becomes acceptable so long as the movies produce hilarity. Once the perceived genre shifts to drama, however, our expectations shift. We don’t expect hilarity, but we do expect deeper plot development and more complex characters.

Nonetheless, not all movies fit into discrete genre classifications (and let me emphasize, while I’m using the dichotomy of drama and comedy as an example, there are obviously far more genres). Funny People and Adventureland written by Greg Mottola who directed Superbad) are two examples of recent films that fall into a gray area between drama and comedy. Both films star comedic actors but feature plots that are primarily dramatic with comedic elements thrown in. Due to the focus on the stand-up circuit in the first half of the film, the beginning of Funny People appears to be leaning more toward a comedy, even if the purpose of some of that comedy is satirical.

In both films, the fact that people were primed to some extent to expect a comedy hurt the films’ receptions (as you will discover later when I discuss some reviews). It is more advantageous for a film to be misperceived as a drama than it is to be misperceived as a comedy. If people are expecting a comedy, they want to laugh. People specifically choose to watch comedies for the intention of making themselves happier, even if it’s just a diversionary form of happiness. If the film turns out to be more of a drama (or in a gray area), the purpose of attending the film is somewhat subverted. An audience that just wanted a laugh is being subject to a weighty movie it did not think was in store. I think the opposite effect—a more comedic movie being misbilled as a drama—is more beneficial: “Wow, that was actually kind of funny” and “There was a lot of dark humor in that movie” are among the positive reactions among an audience treated to a semi-comedic film unexpectedly.

Because drama is such a broad genre, there simply are fewer expectations that come with it. More importantly, people generally don’t come into a drama with a positive desire not to laugh. Humor can infiltrate a drama without subverting it. On the contrary, plot developments can get in the way of a comedy. In fact, the excessive plot developments (and lack of humor) towards the end of Funny People are among the criticisms of the film. So, working against expectation in a perceived drama that results in some laughs is much more likely to work than a lack of humor in a perceived comedy.

The pitfalls of erroneous expectations even affect the critics. Betsey Sharkey complains that, “When that many certifiably funny people working together can’t make a funny movie, that’s a tragedy.” In a review of Adventureland, Amy Biancolli reflects, “Like Superbad, the hormonal-comic vision quest of 2007, Mottola’s latest directorial effort has the meandering plot and mumbling humor of young people trying like hell to grow up. But the youths of Superbad were a little bit younger, a little more likable, their dirty-virgin wit more hilarious.” Sharkey and Biancolli both fall into the trap of expecting a comedy when a comedy was not necessarily intended. By no means do all critics fall into this trap but some do, as do plenty of audience members.*

*I do think this trap could go both ways. For instance, Adventureland received an 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which is unusually high. Some of this may be due to the fact that since it’s unclear whether it fits into a certain genre, standards are lowered altogether by some critics. It need not be funny (because it’s not a comedy) but it need not have a deep plot and complex characters (because it’s not a drama).

Is there a solution? The best solution may be difficult to implement, but that solution is to minimize the influence of genre as much as possible when judging a film. Evaluate the film based on what it is, not on what it’s perceived to be. If I am asked to review a particular ice cream and when I see a white scoop, I expect vanilla and instead realize it is coconut when I taste it, I should still judge the ice cream based on the flavor and not on my misperception. At least, this is the ideal.

And, this should be the ideal for the evaluation of movies as well. Sure, we use different standards for evaluating dramas and comedies but some sort of mix of those standards may be needed for films that fall in between. Sometimes the standards should not be chosen until the film is viewed when it is at all unclear where the film falls on the genre spectrum (or if it falls on the spectrum at all). That way, the film is appraised based on its content, not the billing.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Two others: Pulp Fiction and Fight Club. Both in my top five favorite movies ever. I thought both were hilarious. Both were intended to be dramas, at least sort of, but I didn’t find the plots of them nearly as enticing as, say, Memento, Mulholland Drive, or Eternal Sunshine. Maybe I fit into the Rotten Tomatoes camp.

    Reply

  2. […] is it a tragedy. It’s an observant look at how a man does a job.” Ebert’s mostly right: Everything gets called a comedy, but this certainly isn’t one: Even Zach Galifianakis’s scene isn’t really that funny. […]

    Reply

  3. […] though, we turn our attention to the dramatic category. As Josh has already declared, though, genre concerns can be distracting, so I will not be bound my technical genre classifications. Consider this a list of films I like […]

    Reply

  4. […] is it a tragedy. It’s an observant look at how a man does a job.” Ebert’s mostly right: Everything gets called a comedy, but this certainly isn’t one: Even Zach Galifianakis’s scene isn’t really that funny. […]

    Reply

  5. […] Although not a comedy per se, perhaps the funniest film of the year. See, for example, “Please Mr. Kennedy”; anything said or done by Lillian Gorfein. […]

    Reply

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