Funny People

Personal but self-indulgent, poignant but also lethargic, “Funny People,” Judd Apatow's third directorial effort, is his most original but also his most problematic comedy to date.  Sharply uneven, “Funny People” is basically two movies for the price of one, linked by Adam Sandler as a celeb comic who thinks he's dying in the first and better part, only to realize that perhaps he is not in the second and weaker one.


Offering a deeper, more probing look at the life and work of stand up comics than is the norm in Hollywood flicks, “Funny People” feels like an overstuffed and overwrought picture, one into which Hollywood's King of Comedy pours everything he knows about serio comedy, resulting in a work that lacks sustained dramatic interest, discipline, smooth transition, and cohesion.  Yet half of the movie is sharply observed and really funny, and the acting is consistently accomplished, thus my overall mixed reaction to it.

As writer, Apatow wants to reflect about celebs who face sudden, life-changing (or even threatening) situations, the kind of which call for self-examination, forcing them (and us spectators) to reevaluate their identity, their value system, their friendships and work relationships, and the whole world around them.


The movie is personal in more ways than one.  Apatow has said that the inspiration came from a freak and scary occurrence that happened at his Southern California home during the Northridge earthquake in January 1994.  “The only reason I wasn’t there was because I was painting the house,” he observes, “For about three days, I really appreciated life, but just for three days.” Thus, the movie deals with a serious idea of the impact of survival, if one survives an ordeal, does one learn anything significant from it by way of changing one's outlook on life.

“Funny People” is also personal in another way.  Apatow's entire family appears in the comedy in major roles: His wife-actress Leslie Mann, as Laura, the unhappily married femme who becomes the center of a none too convincing romantic triangle, and their two daughters, Maude and Iris, both very cute, alert, and photogenic.


As George Simmons, Adam Sandler becomes the latest major screen comedian to work for (or with) Apatow, and it's obvious that the part has been tailored to his own specifications and strengths.  Fans of Sandler, who suddenly looks his age, may find themselves speculating which aspects of his on-screen persona reflect those of his work and life off-screen.


Like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (my personal favorite of Apatow's trilogy) and “Knocked-Up,” “Funny People” is male-dominated, defined by uniquely Jewish humor, and raunchy antics, rude and crude pranks (in the first half), and a good ensemble of actors. 

I realize that a director should make pictures about worlds he's familiar and comfy with, but the real test of Apatow's range and diversity as a filmmaker would be when he places a woman center stage, rather than as passive individuals, objects of desire, and secondary characters, as the one played here by Aubrey Plaza, as Daisy, the stand-up comic who gets between Ira and Mark, but has only a few good scenes. 

Though the trio of characters are young, “Funny People” is very much the work of a middle-aged artist, one that might have resulted from mid-life crisis.  Both writer-director and star are in their forties: Sandler is 43 to be exact, and Apatow is 42.  And Sandler, who has been a comedic star for two decades, may have felt that he needed a fresher, or different kind of text to reenergize his career. 


The first reel cross-cuts between two sets of individuals, George Simmons, a celeb surrounded by fans and paparazzi, and three roommates, all in showbiz: Ira (Seth Rogen, almost half his size and more physically appealing), an aspiring stand-up comic; Mark (Jason Schwartzman), a self-absorbed TV actor of a silly sitcom; and Leo (Jonah Hill), the chubby writer-performer who's the youngest, angriest, and most frank of the clique. 

Like his previous films, “Funny People” captures vividly the life-style of this trio, the healthy (and not so healthy) competition between them over girls, the narcissistic self-absorption, the all-consuming ambition to make it big in showbiz, while not neglecting the basic urge to get laid and then quickly talk about it. 


Turning point in the laid-back lives of the trio occurs, when George hires Ira to write material for him, with the duo embarking on a serio-funny, love-hate, ambiguous relationship between an older, savvier mentor and his dependent protégé, who needs to take a lot of crap from the selfish ill man, accommodating all of his erratic and idiosyncratic habits, like putting him to sleep every night, going on double dates (in which he, George, always scores).

Size matters: The running motifs, which are very much part of Jewish humor, are penis jokes.  There's hardly a single scene in which there's no mention or reference to dicks.  This may be another way to justify the rating of a picture that deep down is conventional in sexual politics, bourgeois in morality and sentimental in tone.


The first half of the movie, which is set in L.A., depicts comedic clubs on the Sunset Strip in a rather plausible way, showing real-life, both funny and exhilarating but also awkward and embarrassing moments that comics face on stage and off.


Things get worse, when the tale moves out of L.A., first to san Francisco, and then to Santa Barbara where Laura, George's old flame, lives with her family.  Obviously still in love with George, Laura is married to Clarke (Aussie Eric Bana), a sexy, philandering hubby who travels extensively (China) for his work.


Once George and Ira land at the house, the affair is rekindled in mostly tediously staged emotional and romantic scenes, while Ira is put in charge of keeping company with the two daughters.  We get to know why the couple split 12 years ago, George's apologies for cheating on Lura, how they have always continued to love each other, and so on. 

The film sinks to its lowest level, when Clark shows up at the door unexpectedly and realizes what has been going on during his absence, leading to endless arguments, physical brawls, splitting and reuniting and predictable reconciliations.


The good thing about Apatow is that he continues to demonstrate that as a genre comedy can deal with the most serious and sacred taboos in society, such as middle-aged male virginity (“40-Year-Old Virgin”) unwanted pregnancy from a female POV (“Knocked-Up”), and now the traumatic experience of illness and death (or near-death) and their impact on changing lives in radical mode.


It's the execution, or putting these ideas to practice in film that is comedic in format, which is problematic.  At the end of this overlong picture, which gets disappointingly and increasingly more sentimental, we are left with the questions of was the director too close to his material, too enamored of the jokes to cut some of them out, too interested in writing a substantial part for his wife, whose sequences are the weakest, and the least funny in the picture.


“Funny People” strikes me as a movie that was more fun to make, due to the improvs and chemistry between top-notch actors (all eccentric), than to watch as spectators.  It's a movie in which the process must have been more interesting than the end result. Several of the jokes were written by good comedy writers, such as Brian Posehn and Patton Oswalt and Allen Covert, who knows and has been writing with Sandler. Co-producers Andrew Jay Cogen and Brendan O'Brien also contributed material for Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill.


Despite a more polished look and sharper imagery, courtesy of lenser Janusz Kaminski (Spielberg's brilliant collaborator), the movie is narratively and technically shapeless.  The least subtle of Apatow's works, “Funny People” is a movie in which every idea and feeling is spelled out (actually overstated) and shown for the audience.  Moreover, at least one third of the scenes drag on and on before they terminate, which may account for the excessive running time of two hours and twenty-five minutes.


George Simmons – Adam Sandler
Ira Wright – Seth Rogen
Laura – Leslie Mann
Clarke – Eric Bana
Leo Koenig – Jonah Hill
Mark Taylor Jackson – Jason Schwartzman
Daisy Danby – Aubrey Plaza
Chuck – RZA
Ingrid – Iris Apatow
Mable – Maude Apatow
Dr. Lars – Torsten Voges
Dr. Stevens – Allan Wasserman


A Universal release of a Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Relativity Media of an Apatow and Madison 23 production.
Produced by Judd Apatow, Clayton Townsend, Barry Mendel.
Executive producers, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jack Giarraputo.

Co-producers, Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O'Brien.

Directed, written by Judd Apatow.
Camera, Janusz Kaminski.

Editors, Brent White, Craig Alpert.

Music, Jason Schwartzman, Michael Andrews; music supervisor, Jonathan Karp.

Production designer, Jefferson Sage; art director, James Truesdale; set designers, Aric Cheng, William J. Law III; set decorator, Leslie A. Pope.

Costume designers, Nancy Steiner, Betsy Heimann.

Sound, John Pritchett; supervising sound editor, George Anderson; re-recording mixers, Scott Millan, David Parker.

Associate producer, Lisa Yadavaia.

Assistant director, Matt Rebenkoff.

Casting, Allison Jones.

MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 145 Minutes