Funny People (2009)
In two short years, Judd Apatow has become the king of comedy. He’s co-written and directed two bona fide hits that will go down as comedy classics (40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), and produced gut-busters with heart, like Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The Apatow brand of comedy centers on characters and less on contrived set pieces. He’s built up enough comedy capital in Hollywood that he felt he could write and direct a project less ideally commercial, something tagged as being more personal and serious like in the James L. Brooks mold. Funny People is the mixed results. I applaud Apatow for trying to grow as an artist, but as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Funny People is a broken movie that isn’t funny enough to be fully redeemed.
George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a famous comedy actor that has made several hit Hollywood comedies. He may live in a giant mansion but his life is extremely isolated and lonely. He has no real close friends and years ago he drove away the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann). He has no one to comfort him in his time of need. This prickly man has been informed that he has a terminal blood disease. Simmons decides to go back to his comedy roots, to stand-up, and it is there that he meets the young comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). Ira has grown up with the comedy of George Simmons, so he is flabbergasted when the man himself asks Ira to write jokes for him. Ira’s roommates, fellow stand-up comic Leo (Jonah Hill) and crappy sitcom actor Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), can’t believe his dumb luck. Ira and Simmons build an unorthodox friendship, and Ira is the only person George has confided in about his disease and his fear of dying. And then something amazing happens. George Simmons gets better. He’s got a new lease on life and he aims his attentions on the girl that got away. Laura is married to Clarke (Eric Bana), a handsome Australian businessman, and she has two adorable kids (Apatow’s own girls), which makes it a very poor time to restart her romance with George.
Funny People is the first Apatow-helmed film that feels sadly incomplete, even at two and a half hours. The movie is staggeringly sloppy when it comes to plot structure and character work. First off, when a character is informed that he has a terminal illness at minute three, it doesn’t have the impact that it would if the audience got to know and feel for that individual. In fact, the first half of this movie feels like, and this may get confusing, the second half of another movie. It centers on a selfish character coming to grips with his choices in life, mostly wrong, and beginning to reconnect with people once more, building a mentor friendship and finding the “one that got away.” But there are segments during this first half of Funny People where the impact just cannot be felt because the dramatic legwork has not been achieved. Watching Simmons’ estranged family berate him through tears doesn’t have much of an impact when they discover the news. Seeing George Simmons spend his potential last days jamming with Jack White and other musicians is cool, but it doesn’t come across as anything but another indication that the fake George Simmons is famous in this alternative Los Angeles. It doesn’t have setup, like Simmons talking about one of his life’s pleasures is strumming the guitar or playing before things got complicated. So it’s basically just another celebrity cameo snapshot. While I’m on the topic, the multitudes of celebrity cameos are strangely unfunny, save for a bit where Sarah Silverman describes her lady parts.
This is also the first Apatow comedy where it feels like twenty percent of what I saw promised from TV spots, trailers, making-of specials (there was a good one on Comedy Central to check), the advertising unit if you will, was not in the movie. This gave me the distinct impression that even at a lengthy 150 minutes that Funny People feels misshapen, that there are swaths of material on the cutting room floor that would have assisted the narrative and sad amount of underwritten supporting characters. I’m not saying Funny People would necessarily be a better movie at three hours length, but it would at least feel more fully formed and satisfying.
The main problem with the film, outside of the reverse plot structure, is that everything just goes slack during the uneven second half. George and Ira spend about an hour of the movie with Laura and her family, and it feels like one long uncomfortable detour. Part of the squirmy feeling is intentional, as the audience is supposed to be in Ira’s shoes and see George’s homewrecking as the bad decision train wreck it is. But I also felt uncomfortable because George kept extending his stay day after day and I was getting impatient. I wanted these characters to head back to L.A. and deal more with the Ira/George relationship. During this second half, Ira becomes a background figure that is good for nervous reaction shots. This stalls all the character work that had been done up to this point and Ira goes to pause mode for an hour. This second half section isn’t particularly funny, it isn’t romantic, and it gives little insights into the past between George and Laura. She has established a nice living for herself, with two cute kids and a hunky husband who seems to be a good father when he’s around. In fact, despite the movie’s insistence that Clarke is a cheater (thus ensuring the movie law that it is then acceptable to cheat on him), I found myself liking the hyperactive and sensitive lout. Every plot movement in this second half feels wrong, some of it intentional, but it makes Funny People feel like it has been hijacked and taken hostage. Where did the movie I was kinda liking go? What happened here? This hour feels like a separate movie and one that Funny People would have benefited from simply being dropped entirely.
Perhaps I’ve been watching too much Mad Men in anticipation of its third season, but this movie also disappoints by failing to delve into the creative process of comedians. Despite its running time and subject matter, there isn’t that much standup witnessed. Usually the movie will display about one line or one bit and then cut back to the characters offstage again. We don’t get to see the evolution of comedy or the professionals talking shop about what makes a good joke. There isn’t even much collaboration, so we don’t get to see multiple minds banging out jokes together. There’s a comedian named Randy (Aziz Ansari) who is popular with audiences because he’s loud and spastic, and all the other comedians hate him, but then the movie doesn’t return to this. Go back to this topic. I want to hear more about the divisions within the comedy world, the people that feel like they are more pure or textured in their funny compared to the people that play to the crowd and lap up the easy yuks. Ira’s character work is mostly explored through his changing standup persona, where he seems to gain more confidence and a voice. But there’s this whole other storyline where Ira is a “joke thief” and takes other people’s material and repackages it as his own. This is an interesting story and provides conflict and glimpses into the character of Ira as an insecure and ethically challenged opportunist in a competitive field. It makes him a more dynamic character. I saw more of this storyline in the making-of special for Funny People, and sadly it is only hinted at in the final product. The other comedy players, like Ira’s roommates and his quasi-love interest (Aubrey Plaza), are barely explored as people and professionals.
Apatow comedies are notable for being character-based, but Funny People doesn’t seem too concerned with establishing characters that you want to be around. I found little reason to care. I found most of the characters to not be engaging; some were unlikable but most were simply flat. George Simmons is supposed to be a selfish man, though there’s something inherently selfish about being famous in Hollywood. Comedy itself is inherently selfish, where individuals guard their observations and exploit personal stories for the endorphin highs of audience approval. Is successful comedy linked to selling out? Funny People occasionally visits the dark recesses that comedians utilize for material, like self-lacerating humiliation and family trauma that gets aired out as a means of therapy. Simmons is a selfish and lonely guy and the point of the whole movie is that even after a near-death experience, he’s still selfish and lonely. He’s said he’s changed but has he really? That seems to be the movie’s cosmic joke. This is clearly a personal movie for Apatow, which might explain why it has less resonance for an audience that isn’t as steeped in the history of comedy or the rigors of fame. I just don’t have the same point of interest.
Sandler revealed his acting talent in 2002’s beguiling Punch-Drunk Love, and in Funny People he plays a completely different character than his other adolescent roles. He doesn’t pander to be likable at any point, and he’s generally standoffish from beginning to end. He hasn’t done a lewd, crude movie in over ten years, and this return to raunch rekindles the Sandler I remember listening to constantly in the mid 1990s. This role isn’t as taxing for him as an actor, nor is he given too many chances to reveal deeper layers to George Simmons. I think this is by design from Apatow. Rogen is less his charming self and during the second half of the movie he pretty much shifts his eyes and makes pained faces. He feels at ease in the stand-up sequences, probably because Rogen performed stand-up comedy when he was 13. Mann gets her biggest acting role in years and cries enough, but it made me realize that she works best as an actress that can steal scenes rather than an actress who has scenes built around her. I think Bana (Star Trek) actually comes off the best. He showcases an exuberance for comedy not seen before, and when his character gets emotional it still manages to be funny and believable.
In the end, Funny People just isn’t that funny. There aren’t any particularly clever comedic setups, the characters don’t get many chances to be humorous even as comedians, and the movie just goes slack during its uncomfortable and uneven second half. The Hollywood satire lacks bite, and the best bits are saved for the scathingly unhip and formulaic “Yo, Teach!” sitcom of Schwartzman’s. Apatow is more interested in purging a personal tale onto the screen rather than fashioning a relatable mainstream comedy. I feel that the salutations that Funny People is “more challenging” and “serious” are unwarranted. This is certainly a different movie but is it any more serious than navigating the uncertainty and awkwardness of an unplanned pregnancy or beginning sexuality at middle age? I don’t think so. Beyond this, the movie doesn’t establish its plot well and spends far too much time in side diversions, failing to round out characters and ignoring intriguing premises and storylines. Even the camaraderie, usually a hallmark of Apatow productions, feels lost as the characters have much more friction. On a personal note, I saw this movie while I was on vacation in the Outer Banks. On our car ride back to our beach house, my wife and I got into a car accident. We were both physically fine but her little Ford Focus was totaled. I will now forever associate Funny People with a car accident. If that isn’t enough of an on-the-nose metaphor, while we waited along the hot road for police and tow trucks, I thought to myself, “I just wish the movie was worth this.” It wasn’t.
Nate’s Grade: C
Posted on August 1, 2009, in 2009 Movies and tagged adam sandler, aubrey plaza, aziz ansari, comedy, drama, eric bana, jason schwartzman, jonah hill, judd apatow, leslie mann, seth rogen. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.