Funny People

April 1, 2010

There’s an anecdote from economics which I virtually always use when talking about regret. After failing a test, a lot of people say things like, “Man, I wish I had studied for that test, instead of goofing off!” But it’s actually pretty hard to infer anything about a person’s genuine preferences from that statement. Namely, because you aren’t getting any of the benefits of goofing off now. You got them all at the time. So from the perspective of your current self, you’re really just saying that you wish you had more knowledge now. It’s no different than wishing you had more money. You want the benefit of having money, but you don’t necessarily want to do what it takes to get money. And when you had the chance to make that trade-off, in the past, you chose not to. Thus it’s hard to take such statements seriously.

The question being asked in the movie Funny People is “To what extent is the life you have the life you want to have?” But this question can also be posed in a slightly different way, “To what extent is the life you have the life you have chosen?” The movie is about recognizing that those two questions are the same.

Like any normal person, I can think of all sorts of ways that my life might be better. I could have a million dollars. I could be dating Audrey Tatou. The problem is, also like any normal person, when I imagine, “What would make my life better?” I’m generally thinking “Keeping everything else the same, what would I like to add?” And the list is endless. But of course, when I live my life, the real question is, “Is there anything else I want, understanding what I will have to give up to get it?” And that one is a lot harder to answer in the affirmative.

Alright, so I probably couldn’t be dating Audrey Tatou, no matter how hard I tried. But I likely could be dating someone. And if I were, it would be expensive and a hassle. Which is not to say that there aren’t benefits, too, but there aren’t just benefits.

[OK, Now maybe some spoilers]

The story of Funny People is that Adam Sandler’s character, George, develops a terminal illness, which causes him to think about the choices he has made in life. Immediately he starts to regret things like not spending more time with his family, and ruining a relationship with the “love of his life,” Laura (played by Leslie Mann, Judd Apatow’s wife). Sandler spends the first part of the movie trying to reconnect and reconcile with these people, wanting to use his limited time to live the sort of life he thinks he should be living.

But halfway through the movie, he finds out that the experimental medicine he’s been taking actually worked, and he’s been cured of his fatal illness. Good news, right? Now he has all the time he wished he had when he was reconnecting with all of the important people in his life.

In a cameo appearance, Marshall Mathers points out the other side of George’s recovery. If his new life is the life he wants, now he’s got to live it, day in, day out. Eminem:

“You know what? I think you fucked up. I don’t think you should have took the medicine. [..] I think you should have just let yourself die. Honestly, man, what are you gonna do now? Make another bullshit movie? Fuck another chick who doesn’t like you? You know? That was your way out right there. Now you’re fucking stuck.”

And so he is. Without the desperation and the definiteness of his illness, George is unable to live up to his ideal vision of how he should live. The reason is pretty simple: that life is just not what he really wants. After his recovery, George goes after Laura and even manages to reunite with her. But once he has her, he can’t even maintain interest for a full day. Laura, in turn, realizes that as much as George wishes it were true, he hasn’t really changed at all since they were last together. As she puts it, “You didn’t even cry when Mabel sang Cats. What’s the matter with you?” George: “I don’t know! I’ve seen it on Broadway before… it wasn’t as good.”

It would be too extreme to say that people never make bad choices or experience genuine regret, but the point here is to recognize that every choice to do something has to be a choice not to do something else. Maybe I really should be learning French or trying to earn a million dollars. But the relevant mental exercise is whether I would be happier giving up the life I have now to get those things.

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