It's hard to believe that Funny People is only the third film directed by producer/screenwriter extraordinaire Judd Apatow (40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up). After all, his name's attached to everything these days and he and the actors he works with have become a comedy brand. Yet, here it is. Number three, a tremendously long, winding, All That Jazz-esque bromantic epic linked with another comedic brand: Adam Sandler. As someone who has never been an Adam Sandler fan, I can tell you immediately and without hesitation that for me, this is probably the best acting I've ever seen him do (short of Punch Drunk Love, but this is more enjoyable). Believe it: Funny People is damn funny, consistently so. It keeps you laughing for a 2 1/2 hours...but not without a price.
Sandler plays George Simmons, a stand-up comedian turned ridiculous high-concept Hollywood star. George receives his death knell early on in the film, he has a rare form of leukemia. Without close friends or family, all of whom he shed with his increasing fame, Simmons starts taking experimental medication and embarking on a voyage of depressive narcissism. On a whim, he jumps back on the stand-up circuit and meets struggling starstruck comedian Ira Wright (a slimmed down and adorable Seth Rogen), who he picks up as an assistant and hired confidante. For the first half of the film, we are shown the growth of an accidental friendship between the two as Simmons attempts to come to terms with his own mortality and Wright deals with being a little fish camping out on a pull out couch suddenly confronted with tremendous potential. The interactions are a humorous blend of Sandler/Apatow comedy that works surprisingly well. There's a whole lotta scatological crudity and Sandler theatrics that manage to find tolerable footing in something very real and human.
This is the half of the film that works the best. The progression is steady, the writing is sharp, the characters well-drawn portraits of actor folk trying their damndest at every level. Everyone Ira knows is working on becoming famous somehow. His roommates, two guys who go out of their way to remind Ira of their marginal success (mostly on an unbearable sitcom called Yo, Teach!), are played believably by an especially smug Jason Schwartzman and a toned-down Jonah Hill. The girl Ira has a crush on (the amusingly dry Aubrey Plaza) is a stand-up comic girl next door. Everyone's an actor. Everyone's got a sense of entitlement. No one is particularly likeable, but that's where the comedy comes from. Simmons is, for the most part, capable of being an unapologetic asshole at any time. He admits it. He takes the money, the free stuff, and the women who throw themselves at him. We're reminded of this on multiple occasions, the most memorable perhaps being a scene in which puppy dog Ira sits on the couch at George's house, watching TV while just down the hall, a groupie who minutes earlier claimed she had a boyfriend takes it from behind. There are several points where, even if we know otherwise, George reminds Ira that he's an employee, not a friend. But that's the point, isn't it? Comedy is hard. Being 'on' all the time is tough. Funny people aren't so funny when you're the one dealing with their under pressure egos. George, as he learns he's got a fair shot at recovery, doesn't become a magically better person....just a more determined one.
This is where, for some, the film's issues begin. The first and second halves of Funny People could essentially belong to two different movies. In the first we have friendship in Hollywood, in the second we have a desperate attempt on George's part to recover the former love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann, aka, Mrs. Apatow). The problem? Laura's a married woman with two children (played by Apatow & Mann's daughters). The plot thickens. Basically, if you were uncertain as to George's personality issues before, the second act will have that cleared up for you in a jiffy. Moral complexity aside, each scene remains entertaining and deftly rendered. Laura's Aussie husband is played by a delightfully comic Eric Bana, and the girls have clearly learned a thing or two about being precocious from their parents. It's just a little hard to escape that feeling that maybe they never had to wander back to Laura in the first place. After extended periods of stand-up and industry insight, the weight of melodramatic affairs and marital disruptions brings with it something starkly unpleasant. For people accustomed to the brightness of Sandler's slapstick, this is something of an unwelcome turn of events that seems imperfect in the world of happy endings.
Yet, I'd say that's why it works. Funny People is about just that. It's an incredibly human comedy that manages to touch on what it actually takes to be funny and how difficult and awkward that can be. There's something very real about it, even as it's hitting you with joke after joke about masturbation and male genitalia. Each actor turns in a solid and believable performance, no matter how small the role. Every cameo (and there are dozens) is a success, the laughs rarely miss, and Sandler's never been better. So while the run time is daunting, think of it as getting more for your money.
4 out of 5.
See all of Wilde.Dash's reviews at Love & Squalor.