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Funny People Seems Headed for Box Office Trouble, and That’s the Ugly Truth

August 4, 2009

Judd Apatow’s Funny People was the #1 movie in America this weekend, but nearly all of Monday’s industry chatter was about its disappointing financial returns. At $23.4 million, the Adam Sandler/Seth Rogen vehicle came in at the low end of industry projections for its opening-weekend grosses, and current estimates indicate the movie may not earn back its estimated $75 million price tag.

The “grade” Funny People received from CinemaScore, a Las Vegas research firm that conducts exit polls for virtually all major Hollywood releases, is driving this pessimistic forecast. Viewers gave it a B-, which may sound fairly solid until you learn that most movies, even ones that star Vin Diesel, score in the B+ range. And The Ugly Truth, which is almost a movie in its own right, scored an A- with CinemaScore poll participants.

Having seen both Funny People and The Ugly Truth within a week of each other at the same theater in quintessential mid-America, I can affirm the disparity in these audience reactions. Many people laughed uproariously when Katherine Heigl fellated a ballpark hot dog in The Ugly Truth, but I could hear crickets chirping during even the cleverest of verbal barrages in Funny People.

Please don’t read that last part wrong—Sandler and crew weren’t trying to squeeze laughs out of high-concept political farce or graduate-level philosophical observations. Just as in The Ugly Truth, most of the jokes in Funny People were about genitals and actions performed in, on, or adjacent to them. The two films’ levels of vulgarity were comparable. Both were comedies of bad manners.

It could be said, then, that the primary difference between them is one of fantasy versus reality. In this case, the rule for widely popular and financially successful comedy seems to favor the former. In the ridiculous fantasy The Ugly Truth, beautiful idiots talk about and do stupid things no one would ever do. In the sometimes achingly real Funny People, relatively intelligent, average-looking people talk about and do stupid things most of us do, as we fumble around life trying not to break anything too valuable.

Granted, in Funny People, Sandler’s George Simmons lives in a world of opulence we will never know (by the way, if you’re rich like George and you’re reading this, have you ever thought about being the patron of an original comedy writing and pop culture analysis website?). But the film is quite effective at wiping away the glossy sheen of wealth and fame to reveal a regretful, isolated man, one whose physical ailment holds a mirror up to his slow spiritual death, long since begun.

As you will probably read in more straightforward reviews, Funny People has some significant flaws that are especially prominent in its second half. It’s at best a qualified success. But Adam Sandler’s performance is stunningly good, and the first half of the film achieves a perfectly bittersweet tone. Of course a dying comedian would be funnier than he’s ever been—what better to inspire comedy than desperately trying to deny, refute, or turn one’s back on tragic reality? Sandler just nails this aspect of character and story, and it’s remarkably affecting.

The best moments of Funny People reveal some of “the ugly truth” about life and show how hard it is to face up to things that just can’t be laughed off. It shows us the tough parts of real life and leaves the humor for a bunch of jokes told mostly by schlubby-looking guys. The Ugly Truth takes the opposite approach, trying to score laughs by showing purportedly “funny people” with toned Hollywood bodies flopping around in funhouse scenarios, while telling us nothing about life as any real person knows it.

I guess we’ve now seen which one is the recipe for box-office success in 2009. The Ugly Truth seems to be what the people want. That makes me want a drink.

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