Is the “Funny People” box office take half full or half empty?

Like so many things in life, the meaning of the weekend gross for the Judd Apatow/Adam Sandler “serious comedy,” “Funny People,” is a matter of perspective. On the more cheerful side, we have the trades, which typically enough are accentuating the positive, noting that the somewhat risky project, at least by modern mainstream film standards, was actually #1 at the box office, even if the amount it took the lead by was less than mega-spectacular.

The Hollywood Reporter (actually the AP as carried by THR) thinks that Judd Apatow is living in the best of all possible box office worlds:

Movie audiences have taken a liking to Adam Sandler’s more serious side…[“Funny People”] grabbed the top spot at the weekend boxoffice with a $23.4 million debut.

Variety takes a more measured, but still somewhat upbeat, tone:

Adam Sandler’s “Funny People” has topped a moderate weekend box office with $23.4 million at 3,008 playdates.

Nikki Finke, however, has a different way of seeing things. Here’s her headline:

‘Funny People’ No Laughing Matter; Opens To Lousy $8.6M Fri And Worse $7.4M Sat For Disappointing $23.4M Weekend

La Finke goes on to point out that Universal has been lowering expectations from Sandler’s usual $30-$40 million openers to a more modest $25 million, and fell a bit short of that.

Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, and Adam Sandler kvetch over turkey It really does come down to your frame of reference. In my weekend preview post, I mentioned the Sally Field/Tom Hanks starring “Punchline,” which I think is a better point of comparison than any particular Apatow or Adam Sandler film, including 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” simply because of the subject matter, the more-serious-than-you-might-expect approach, and the level of star power. That movie got similarly mixed reviews but was one of 1988’s lowest grossing films, despite the presence of two bankable stars. Two small differences: one had laughs, the other doesn’t, and Sally Field was not ever thought of as a great comedian, “The Flying Nun” notwithstanding.

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Will “Funny People” be a sad clown at the box office?

Whatever my reaction to it winds up being when I finally see “Funny People,” Judd Apatow has my respect. As a producer, writer, and sometime director of mostly R-rated comedies, he’s enjoyed a level of unusually consistent box office and artistic/critical success over a large number of movies that only Pixar, which takes much longer to make its very different brand of crowd-pleaser, can top right now.

Making good movies requires taking risks, and Apatow is taking one right now with a film that is being described as a tragicomedy and with his only hedge being a cast dominated by popular comic actors led by Adam Sandler. That the film seems to be largely dividing critics and generating confused reactions would, if I were Apatow or Universal, make me a little nervous. Actually, Universal may be more nervous than Apatow. As Nikki Finke and everyone else is reporting tonight, the hyphenate comedy guy just inked a 3-picture deal with them, so he’s set for the time being.

Variety‘s Dave McNary reports that box office predictions vary pretty widely for the film, from the low twenty millions to the mid-thirties. No wonder. A casual look around the wilds of Rotten Tomatoes indicates that the Apatow’s third feature as a director after “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” is far different piece of work and what you might call “difficult.” As far as I can remember, this has almost never indicated an immediate box office success — better to have critics universally detest the movie, it seems, than be conflicted. Movies that elicit this kind of reaction have more than once emerged years later as cult hits or even, as in the case of “Blade Runner,” legitimate classics. On the other hand, Adam Sandler’s name will count for something, and the presence of Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, among others, certainly won’t hurt. But, on the other other hand, we’ve seen the power of stars amount to less than expected results more than once over the last year or so.

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A Chat with Kevin Nealon

Kevin Nealon’s been a familiar face on television since his days as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” but in recent years, he’s become more known for his work on Showtime’s long-running series, “Weeds.” Those who can’t afford the premium stations, however, may also see him pop up as the host of TBS’s “World’s Funniest Commercials” specials. Won’t you please join us for…

Kevin Nealon: Hey, Will! How are you doing?

Bullz-Eye: Hey, Kevin, good to talk to you!

KN: Yeah, you, too!

BE: So this is not your first time around the block for TBS.

KN: No, it’s not! It’s starting to add up. (Laughs)

BE: So how did you come to hook up with them in the first place?

KN: Oh, gee, let me see if I can remember. It’s been about…oh, I’m guessing eight years now? Seven or eight years. I think they just kind of came to my agents with this offer to host this show, and I always loved funny commercials. You know, one of the reasons – like a lot of people – that I watch the Super Bowl is for the commercials during it, so I was into that. And, also, I went to school for marketing and learned a lot about commercials then, and I was going to be in advertising, but instead I went into comedy. So there’s a big interest there for me.

BE: Do you have a favorite commercial from this most recent special that really stands out?

KN: Well, there are a couple that I like. There’s one…I think it’s for Berlitz Language School, where a guy’s on the phone and he’s trying to find out how to spell “Def Leppard” because he’s doing a tattoo on somebody’s back. And it’s all in subtitles, but the woman goes, “Do you mean ‘deaf’ as in hearing, or ‘death’ as in dying?” He goes, “Um, I’m not sure.” Then he looks to the person’s back, where he’s just made the tattoo “deaf.” That’s a cool one, and there’s another one for Tabasco that’s from Belgium, where they show a streaker running across a soccer field, the cops are chasing him, and then they stop the action and say, “An hour earlier,” and they show him in a restaurant having Tabasco sauce. They kind of back up the whole thing, from the soccer field leading back up to when he used the Tabasco.

BE: So where did you film this special? I know you film them on location in various places.

KN: Oh, yeah, we’ve done them everywhere! Well, not everywhere, but we’ve done them in California, in Paris, New York. This one happens to be in Chicago, which is great, because I love Chicago.

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