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Review: Funny People

By  · Published on July 30th, 2009

There’s no doubt that Funny People is Judd Apatow’s most mature film to date. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s his best or his funniest or his most entertaining. In fact, I’m not sure what it means exactly. However, the reason it’s more mature is that the characters’ situations built into the film are not played for laughs. There’s no middle-aged sexual repressives getting hair ripped from their chests or stoned slackers accidentally becoming fathers. If anything, it’s situational drama – the characters are funny, their lives are not.

After massive success with his mainstream comedies, George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is diagnosed with a rare blood disease and placed on experimental medication. His impending mortality and a new partnership with assistant Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) prompts him to rethink his life and reconnect with the people he once loved, especially Laura (Leslie Mann), the one that got away.

I’m sort of at a loss for words because, as much as I hate to say it, the movie didn’t exactly stick with me like it should have. Don’t get me wrong – the humor almost always works, the drama is humanistic (if not a bit too much at times), but over all it didn’t quite have the impact that it probably should have. After thinking about it, this flaw is owed completely to Apatow not being economical with his characters.

But let’s start at the beginning.

It’s really refreshing to see a high brow comedy based on characters that are brought to life by some really talented actors. Sandler is the best he’s been in a long time, probably since Punch Drunk Love, and Seth Rogen is actually in a very new role that he slips into really well. Obviously the movie hinges on their dynamic, and the two have undeniable chemistry. George and Ira have a complicated relationship, the type of relationship that develops when someone who brings you diet cokes for a living becomes your best friend. It’s not a new dynamic in film by any stretch, but it’s given a fresh life with two men trying to figure out what they mean to each other. Not that it’s all that overtly personal or emotional, but there’s always an underlying loneliness that propels George in all he does that’s shielded by an inability to admit being close to anyone. I suppose that’s the danger of entertaining people. It becomes a one-sided relationship, and when the comedian drives home alone (or with a hot young thing only interested in sleeping with him for the story), it lends incredible empathy. Sandler is brilliant in the role.

I feel like I’m hinting at it, so I’ll just come out and say it. With the semi-autobiographical nature of the movie (it starts with footage of Sandler (as George) making prank phone calls in college that Apatow shot when they were roommates), the slight self-mockery, and the loneliness of the performer – there’s an obviously correlation between this story concept and The Wrestler. Where as the latter is a much darker, much more dramatic film, Sandler playing a sort of Doppleganger of himself evokes some similar reactions. If Mickey Rourke was a has-been playing a has-been, Sandler is a major success that’s playing a celebrity who finds his success hollow.

Rogen plays off of this perfectly as a struggling comedian suddenly given the license to quit his job at the deli in order to roll around on private jets with one of the biggest stars in the world. He’s the happy little center of a world that desperately needs a happy little center. The meat of his character is spent dealing with his roommates and trying to grab the attention of fellow comedian Daisy (played well by Aubrey Plaza). Unfortunately, the tension between his roommates – the sitcom-starring Mark (Jason Schwartzman) and the up-and-coming stand up Leo (Jonah Hill) – is often manufactured, and adds more drama than necessary, especially in an already heavy film. But without that conflict, Rogen would be even more of a sidekick instead of a co-star. Plus, a decent amount of humor comes out of it, so it’s tough to complain too much.

In order to avoid the weight of the drama, though, Apatow and company almost always refuse to stare it straight in the eye, choosing instead to make witty comments and keep that armor on. It works not only to keep the flow of the story light, but also to reveal some major character flaws. The other built-in, tension-cutting device is the inclusion of a solid amount of stand up comedy that almost always works. Even Raaaaaaaandy (Aziz Ansari), the hack comic and focus of the viral campaign for the film is funny for how absolutely unfunny his stand up is and how boisterous the club response is. Above all, the dialog is sharp and gives a great look into the daily lives of people who are paid to be funny.

Where the film fails is in George’s attempt for redemption. Apatow makes some brave story choices, but the most important ones are completely unsatisfying. He sacrifices good will toward his characters in order to create a film with no moral center. Everyone does something fairly despicable which seems disingenuous – especially when it comes to Ira who is generally sweet, at least trying to do the right things in his life. I’m not saying that characters have to learn grand lessons, but they do need to experience some sort of growth. When George is sick, he reaches out to Ira in order to create a legacy, and reaches out to his sister and parents in order to feel that familial connection. When George learns that he’s getting better, he reaches out to the final piece of the puzzle – the love of his life who he cheated on many years ago and lost.

Unfortunately, the situation is complicated by her being married with two children. The brilliance of this is in creating a harsh lesson for George to learn. He believes that there’s a check list of things that will make him happy, but in dealing with his feelings for Laura and in trying to “save her” from a beautiful home, husband and family, there’s an answer about internal change leading to happiness that seems to be screaming into George’s face without him hearing it.

The downside is that Apatow handles it almost ham-fistedly, putting together a final act that stumbles its way to a fairly unfulfilling ending, leaving the great change that George needs to make to happen off-screen. Part of me thinks that showing the change would have cheapened the film and made it feel too polished and tidy, but if the ending is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation – Apatow painted himself into it. This also goes for the criticism that the film would work well as a 90-minute comedy. I have to disagree only because of the emotional depth that Apatow was attempting to create. He certainly failed to make it here, but 90-minutes would have felt far too formulaic, glossing over what was genuine about it in the first place.

Over all, it’s still a good film. It’s a film that will be many things to many different people. It’s a film that shows intense growth from an already-talented director. In a way, most directors have to make their personal story first (usually about a rebellious kid in college coming of age), but Apatow seems to have made his after making two successful films. With that unique opportunity, and the popularity he’s gained before making his personal story, he’s able to put his friend from college (who also happens to be hyper-famous) and his wife and children on screen for all to see. It’s all very sweet and endearing, but it’s sometimes tough not to wonder if Apatow didn’t simply want to show off his daughter singing, and his family doing adorable things, for millions of people.

Contrary to what most are saying, the film doesn’t fall apart in the third act. The film builds too much into its first two acts that just can’t be dealt with in the end. Apatow’s need to make every character realistic is laudable, but his need to make every character complex hinders the project. Claiming that the third act is unsatisfying is fine, but it’s the slow build throughout the beginning and middle that doom the final act. Even the side characters get into strange ethical quandaries that need resolution; there’s just no need for that sort of thing. Strangely enough, even with the structural issues, the movie itself is a showcase of talent that’s fresh and heartfelt. In the end, it’s a very good movie that could have been great. If I hang my hat on all the problems, it’s simply out of frustration that Funny People could have been so much more than it was. Even if what it was was a solid comedic drama.

If nothing else, it has me looking forward to Apatow’s next.

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