Review: Funny People
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
With “Funny People,” his third feature as writer and director, comedy kingpin Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up”) attempts the improbable: a comedic epic. He fills a two-and-a-half hour movie with joy, pain, sorrow, mortality, love, loss, lots of characters and, of course, plenty of penis jokes (after all, what would an Apatow movie be without his trademark brand of good-hearted crassness?). It's admirable that this 41-year-old filmmaker decided to take a stab at something more ambitious, mature, painstaking and profound than his previous works, but his knife isn't sharp enough. “Funny People” is moving, but never earth-shaking, and the jokes that perpetually offset the drama are humorous, but rarely hilarious. Focusing on a superstar comedian whose waning health causes him to (sort of) reevaluate his life, it suffers from a terminal case of self-indulgence long before an extraneous third act sends it into critical condition. A cluster of solid performances from an all-star cast and a clump of winning moments from Apatow's intermittently strong script keep the film from being a total wash, but the uneven sum isn't nearly as good as its sporadically commendable parts.
It's clear from the get-go that “Funny People” is a labor of love for its maker, or, more specifically, a love letter to comedians – comedians like himself and Adam Sandler, the movie's main attraction who plays its ailing lead character. Apatow opens with some (presumably) vintage video footage of Sandler making a prank phone call in his signature, old-Jewish-lady accent, which I guess is funny if you remember Sandler's pre-sellout days fondly. The film goes on to mirror Sandler's actual life, casting him as George Simmons, an A-list funnyman whose blockbuster movies – “Mer-Man” and “Re-Do” are swapped in for “The Waterboy” and “Little Nicky” – have brought him heaps of fame and fortune. But George's career has also put him on a path of loneliness and selfishness (his massive L.A. mansion is a multi-million dollar shrine to his own success), and he's pushed away those who are supposed to matter most (like his parents, his sister and his former sweetheart, Laura, played by Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann). When George learns he has less than a year to live due to an untreatable form of leukemia, he internalizes the news and begins retracing his roots in stand-up comedy clubs. At one such venue, he meets Ira (Apatow regular Seth Rogen, in top form both physically and professionally), a sensitive, struggling comedian not unlike George's former self. George hires Ira as his joke writer/assistant and, through a prolonged series of ups, downs and below-the-belt punchlines, the faithful up-and-comer becomes the disillusioned veteran's best (and only) friend.
I mentioned that George only sort of reevaluates his life. “Funny People” is not your typical misanthrope-rejoins-the-human-race kind of movie, with the clouds finally parting to let the sun shine down on the reformed antihero. George starts out an egotistical jerk, continues as a more sympathetic egotistical jerk and ends up an only slightly less egotistical jerk (since it's revealed in the trailer, it's no spoiler to say that our protagonist beats his disease, which, against expectations, hardly serves as an amendatory wake-up call). Apatow wisely avoids mushy sentimentality, takes great pains to keep the mood light even when the story treads on unmistakably serious ground, and makes George a character who's likable but far from beyond reproach. Sandler gets this, and I'll agree with the popular opinion that “Funny People” contains Mr. Happy Madison's best performance. I'm allergic to the actor's ingratiating voices and improvised songs (both of which are in abundance here), but he shows off a skillful dramatic side that's rarely seen, and whenever his character's more vulnerable moments crept in, I could feel my tear ducts trembling. Such is the film's greatest virtue: we come to care about these characters, especially George and Ira, whose friendship is believable thanks largely to the rapport between Sandler and Rogen. (Apatow should also be praised for giving “Funny People” a very polished look and for providing fascinating insights into the world of stand-up comedy.) But the director and his trusty troupe throw far too many self-serving pans on the fire for any of the positive elements to have lasting effects.
Watching “Funny People,” I was reminded of “Ocean's Twelve,” Steven Soderbergh's heist caper-sequel that played more like a recording of a cliquish celebrity gathering than an actual movie. Yes, there's a story, and it's enjoyable to a certain degree, but there's also a sense that the actors on camera and the filmmakers behind it are more concerned with entertaining themselves than the audience. More than any of Apatow's other titles (be they ones he wrote, produced, directed or, as in this case, all three), “Funny People” is filled, top to bottom, with what the multi-hyphenate and his crew of familiar collaborators clearly know and love. We see it in the set design, such as in the apartment that Ira shares with actor buddies Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), which is riddled with Apatow-friendly décor like “Dr. Strangelove” film stills and Rodney Dangerfield photographs. We hear it in the dialogue, which makes frequent mention of Rogen's weight loss, Rogen and Hill's brother-like resemblance and the requisite pop culture references. We see it most in the way Sandler/George is depicted: as a venerable comedy god who's not only idolized by the people in the movie, but obviously by those making it as well. Normally, these touches – which blur the line between the real and the fictional – work in bringing pop-savvy viewers into Apatow and company's party. “Funny People” marks the first time in which the approach feels less relatable and more members-only. With all the nods to their own interests, we constantly wonder: “are these folks poking fun at themselves or are they just full of themselves?”
“Funny People” finally flat-lines when, after already nearing the two-hour mark, it veers into a terribly strained, overlong and alien climactic segment in which George, now leukemia-free, attempts to win back lost love Laura, who's now married to Clarke (Eric Bana) and has two children (Apatow's own daughters, Maude and Iris). In what ultimately amounts to nothing, Apatow plunges us into a domestic scenario that feels entirely removed from what precedes it, and is laced with superfluous scenes and exchanges that even the in-the-zone actors can't redeem. (Sorry, Eric Bana, you're great, but you don't belong in this movie. And Leslie Mann, you're the best actor in this film, but your husband wrote you a lousy part.) You'll notice I barely touched on the funny parts of “Funny People,” and that's because the bona fide laughs are few and far between. By the time the credits rolled, I felt like the joke was on me.