Funny People, the latest film by writer/director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) has been advertised as being a comedy, when in fact it is more of a dramedy, which happens to contain many moments of true hilarity. It is Apatow’s most mature film to date (this in spite of the director’s need to talk about penises every 2.5 minutes in each of his films), and certainly the most mature work Sandler (Big Daddy, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan) has ever done in his life. While it’s not proof that either man will ever truly grow up, it’s a testament to the fact that both are maturing in their approach to the material they work on.
Sandler plays George Simmons, an amazingly successful former standup comedian-turned-actor, who has sold out his principles for a big mansion and a hefty cut of his movies’ box office grosses. He’s still good to his fans though, stopping to pose for pictures and crack jokes in order to make sure they crack a smile. However when George gets some tests back from his doctor, stating that he has an extremely rare blood disease and his chances are grim bordering on hopeless, he begins the slow path through self-absorbed grief to introspection and ultimately makes an earnest attempt to right the wrongs of his life.
At a comedy club one night, George happens to cross paths with Ira Wright (Seth Rogen, who also served as an executive producer on the film), a barely funny funnyman whose own friends at work and his roommates at home continually tell him how unamusing he is. Perhaps it’s the fact that Ira’s giving his all that one night, or George is too lost in his own self-pity to notice fully, but some of Ira’s material strikes a chord with him as having promise, and George hires Ira to write jokes for him.
Thus begins another odd path for both men, as Ira winds up becoming George’s personal assistant, and George helps Ira develop not only the true comedian waiting to emerge, but also the nerve to finally pursue the woman he’s been attracted to for some time, Daisy (the adorable Aubrey Plaza), a fellow comedian.
The thing about Funny People is that it mixes a semi-behind-the-scenes take on the showbiz world with the impending tragedy first of George’s death, then whether or not he will indeed become a better person once he finds his body is responding to some experimental medicines a specialist is giving him. The specialist, Dr. Lars (Torsten Voges) is already well-known from the film’s trailers, as Simmons and Ira mock his accent, asking him “Were you mad when you got killed off at the end of Die Hard?” Trust me, although the jokes in that scene are familiar, they don’t lose their bite when you see them on the big screen, nor are they the best within that moment. Both Apatow and Sandler allow Rogen (Zack and Miri Make A Porno, Monsters vs. Aliens) to have the closing line here, which is a true howler.
There are appearances by numerous comedians, many of whom haven’t been in the spotlight for some time, and sadly, may not be fully familiar to a younger audience: Norm MacDonald, Charles Fleischer, Paul Reiser, and others. Current luminaries such as Eminem and Sarah Silverman are thrown in to even out the generation gap, and there are also pop-ins by James Taylor and MySpace founder Tom Anderson. This helps to sell the film as an insider’s guide to the way Hollywood works, but it’s not really necessary, and only helps to pad the running time of two and a half hours, which after a while is quite a bear to manage.
Another subplot adding to the run time is George’s choice to re-pursue his former wife Laura (Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann), who he foolishly cheated on, and has now remarried to yet another cheater named Clarke (Eric Bana), and has two kids with him (the Apatows’ real-life daughters). This thread of the story is well-handled, but in truth, the story does bog down a bit almost as soon as George and Ira arrive at Laura’s house while Clarke is out of town, and the sparks between the two former loves begin to reignite. While the movie is never truly boring, it is at this point that one does begin to realize, “Hey, I’ve been sitting here a while…this isn’t ending anytime soon, is it?”
The acting on all levels is above the board, and each player knows their characters inside and out. Adam Sandler in particular does a good job, make no mistake, but he is far from able enough to be considered a serious dramatic actor. However, given what’s on display here, one can see that greater performances await him in the future, if he can keep from going back to his one-note loveable man-child characters he seems so fond of playing. It’s also my own personal opinion that Apatow needs to find a way to sell his comedic stories without managing to mention penises for at least ten minutes at a time. One has to wonder if the man is overly confident, or compensating through comedy.
In the final evaluation however, Funny People is definitely worth your time and bucks. Be prepared to laugh, to possibly shed a tear…but most importantly, in spite of the somewhat long-windedness of it all, to be entertained.