Judd Apatow really seemed like he could do no wrong. And I suppose he still hasn’t. Funny People isn’t a bad movie at all. In fact, I’ll go right ahead and call it a good movie. Appropriately coupled with its title, it’s very funny—there are a lot of laughs to be had in this one. To boot, it’s got interesting characters doing interesting (and sadly believable) things, and it really does boast some tremendous performances from just about everyone involved. Sounds like a home run, doesn’t it? But, really, it’s all kind of a great big mess.
After the straight-up comedy that was The 40-Year-Old Virgin and the comedy-that-was-kinda-veering-towards-drama that was Knocked Up, Apatow (as a writer/director) has embraced the dramatic elements of his films full-on with a film about grown adults who let their emotions turn them all into great big children. The film stars an Adam Sandler that is entirely unlike every version of him that’s come before, and while he’s a completely dislikable character, Sandler really turns in a tremendous performance.
I’m always up for Adam Sandler doing something to stretch his legs a little bit and perhaps be taken more seriously. While I wasn’t the biggest fan of Spanglish, I nevertheless appreciated seeing him in that role. Reign Over Me was terrible, however, and I have just about nothing good to say about that film. Ah, but Punch-Drunk Love is a real gem—a favorite of mine from Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker who does nothing but make favorites. Sandler was terrific in that film, and in Funny People he’s even better.
But, he is a huge dick. Sandler plays George Simmons, a famous comedian and actor who has made several really low-grade dopey comedies. (I can’t think of who that’s reminding me of.) And he’s a complete dick. He’s a guy who has random sex with anonymous women at the drop of a hat simply because he’s famous and he can, and he directly insults nearly everyone he comes in contact with (including the audience at his shows). Simmons goes to the doctor one day and discovers that he has a disease–a form of leukemia–and he’s dying. Upon hearing this information, he doesn’t stop being a dick, but he does opt not to tell anyone and decides to go back to the stage and re-embrace his stand-up comedy roots.
It’s in doing so that he meets aspiring stand-up comic Ira (Apatow poster-child Seth Rogen). He hires Ira to write some jokes for him as he cruises the stand-up circuit and to pretty much act as his personal assistant. Ira is sick of seeing his roommates’ (Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill) successes without any to show of his own, and he gladly jumps on the offer. Ira and George’s rapport basically consists of George being a closed-off arrogant asshole and Ira letting him—and even practically thanking him for it. Not long after they’ve begun working together, George tells Ira what he has yet to tell anyone else. Eventually, Ira persuades George to tell others. And he does: his colleagues, his family that he never sees, and Laura (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife), the love of his life who left him twelve years ago when he cheated on her.
Now, I’m not telling you anything that the trailer didn’t tell you when I say that George doesn’t die. He gets better, and he has quite the near-death experience to learn from. But does he, really? It’s an interesting concept, and the one that Apatow wanted to explore with this movie—examining a person who comes dangerously close to death and learns absolutely nothing from it. Intriguing, yes, but inherently flawed as well. The movie is about so many different things and different characters, that, at the end of it all, it feels like the leukemia storyline was almost irrelevant.
Of course, it isn’t, though—Apatow ably exposes this character who has more or less completely squandered a second chance at life because he’s too selfish and stuck-up to grasp what living a good life is all about. It isn’t so much that he doesn’t learn anything as it is that he’s learned all the wrong things. He’s learned that he wants to seize happiness, but his idea of happiness is askew and he doesn’t care what it costs to get it. He wants Laura back, and Laura, against her better judgment, wants him back too.
After twelve years of anger and hurt, Laura nabs the opportunity to forgive and make amends with George when she hears that he’s dying. She tells him that she has an awful and loveless marriage to man who regularly cheats on her, and she jumps at the chance to sleep with George when he and Ira visit her house to meet her children (played by Apatow’s and Mann’s own kids, Maude and Iris).
However, when we finally meet her husband, Clarke (Eric Bana, giving a very funny performance), he’s immediately one of the more likable characters in the movie, and we start to doubt the validity of her accusations. But both Laura and George look at him in the same bitter light because they are in love with each other and need a way to rationalize their being together. Meanwhile, Ira remains the voice of sanity, trying to convince George to not tear apart what appears to be a genuinely happy family.
If it sounds like there’s a whole lot going on here, it’s because there is. I haven’t even touched on the subplots involving Ira’s roommates. Jason Schwartzman (who also assisted with the film’s music), such a funny (and funny-looking) little guy, plays Mark, who has landed a comedian’s dream gig—his very own sitcom, a terrible Welcome Back Kotter-esque show called Yo, Teach (which never would stay on the air for as long as it does in this movie). Jonah Hill is Leo, the “3XL version of Ira”, who is seeing a lot of success working at the Improv. Also, there’s Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), the girl that Ira has his eyes on. A very interesting character, she’s not played out in the way you might expect.
But I said it earlier, and I’ll say it again (in case you haven’t already picked up on it), this movie is a huge mess. There’s so much going on (not to mention a good helping of self-indulgence on Apatow’s part–”Look at my kid sing!!” he seems to say) that it’s hard to take a breath during the thing. One plot thread hops to another to another to another and back again and overtop of one another until we’re all just kind of exhausted and confused. It ends up feeling like two—or maybe even three—films crammed together. And yet, even at a staggering 146 minutes, it still manages to feel like there’s something missing in a lot of places.
And I imagine there is. I feel like there was probably a lot of material with Laura that got cut, especially from her earliest appearances in the film. Once Laura is formally introduced to us the movie has been on for over an hour, and it really jumps into the character as if we’ve known her this whole time. Apatow fashions a big, emotional hear-to-heart between George and Laura in their first scene together, and it really feels kind of awkward and out-of-left-field, especially when you consider that the only scene she was in prior to that was a brief phone conversation between the two of them where all she wanted was to not be talking to George.
The movie juggles a lot of balls, between depression, infidelity, ambition, idealism, love, happiness, and everything else in between. Sometimes a few of them falter a bit, but you have to admire Apatow’s determination to keep them all going and, even more than that, his unique perspective on all of them. Funny People is a film that I can’t stop thinking about–the characters, their relationships, the tone, and the overall sentiment are all spot-on elements that I just can’t shake.
No, it’s not a total winner, but it’s very funny, emotionally resonant, and several steps closer to the real “ugly truth” about life and love than some other comedies making the cinematic rounds these days. It may be a mess of a film, but Apatow knows people better than most highly successful filmmakers. He doesn’t make any excuses for George’s childish behavior (or anyone else’s, for that matter), but he doesn’t sever his humanity, either. There’s a very telling shot at the very beginning of the film that I really liked. Just after George is told that he is dying, there is a shot of the doctor from George’s POV. In his anguish, it veers up, looking behind the doctor’s desk, and briefly racks focus to the photos of the doctor with his own family before fading to black. A moment of regret? Maybe so.