Status: In theaters (opened 7/31/09)
Directed By: Judd Apatow
Written By: Judd Apatow
Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jason Schwartzman, Jonah Hill
If there’s a canon of movies about comedians, I’m sure Scorsese’s The King of Comedy tops the list, but Judd Apatow’s third film, Funny People, is right up there. It’s a film that’s touching when it wants to be, depressing at times, insightful at others, and funny throughout.
The film stars Adam Sandler as George Simmons, a comedian-turned-actor who’s a lot like Adam Sandler. This isn’t a bad thing: part of the film’s charm is that it gives us a taste of what life is like for a mega-star of Sandler’s fame and celebrity. We see people pulling out their cell phones and snapping his picture everywhere he goes, others who come up and ask for a photo with him or an autograph, and leering onlookers every time he ventures out in public. We also get to see his circle of famous friends, providing ample opportunities for humorous cameos and a long section of credits of Himselfs, ranging from other comedians and actors (and comedian-actors) to a certain musician whose very presence in the movie is funny in and of itself, but the role has some added humor to throw in as well. (This could actually be said of two musicians who appear in Funny People, come to think of it.)
Early on in the film, George Simmons learns that he has a rare form of leukemia, and is put on experimental medication that gives him an 8% chance of overcoming it. Spurred by this shocking news, he assumes an all-too-understandably reflective mindset, revisiting the One Who Got Away (Leslie Mann) and returning to his stand-up comedy roots. After a painful improvisational set at an L.A. comedy club, a young up-and-comer named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) catches his eye, and the two develop a working relationship that quickly blossoms into friendship.
The story of Ira and George forms the crux of Funny People‘s plot for the first half of the film, and despite the underlying morbid basis of their relationship, Rogen and Sandler are thoroughly enjoyable to watch as they interact and play off of each other. Sandler in particular really gets to show his range as an actor, exhibiting more of the kind of acting chops we saw in Reign Over Me than the crazy antics of his more typical Zohan fare. The surprisingly-skinny Rogen complements him perfectly, showing that even while he might not be the sure-thing lead actor he was believed to be (as Zack and Miri Make a Porno proved), he’s as good of a second-billed star as there is out there today, and Funny People puts him squarely in his wheelhouse.
The supporting cast provides an abundance of comedic bolstering to the film, starting with Jonah Hill in his typical role, but also featuring Jason Schwartzman as the hilariously proud star of a cheesy TV sitcom. There’s also Aziz Ansari, the guy who’s probably best known for inciting some recent Internet outrage, cast true to life as a hack comedian, and his fellow “Parks and Recreation” cast member Aubrey Plaza. Schwartzman stands out with his characteristically spot-on deadpan delivery, but all of these performances contribute nicely to the total product.
Nearly stealing the show, though, is Eric Bana, as the Aussie husband of Leslie Mann’s Laura (the aforementioned One Who Got Away). The latter parts of the film focus on George’s attempts to win Laura back, providing some additional opportunities to further explore broader emotional pastures than your typical comedy would be willing to venture into. Bana’s presence makes sure to keep things from ever getting too serious, punctuating several scenes with a hilariously self-deprecating performance. The film as a whole, in fact, finds a near-perfect balance between drama and comedy, cementing its sources of humor in real-life situations and allowing both sides to amplify each other organically.
Judd Apatow once again has cast his wife and children here, as he did in Knocked Up. He shares this particular form of familial narcissism with Kevin Smith, but Apatow has the advantage of being married to an actress (Leslie Mann) who can actually act. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of his kids, and his insistence on bringing them front and center for a significant period of time is probably Funny People‘s biggest shortcoming. There’s one scene that is particularly indulgent, featuring what I assume is an actual Apatow home video, but otherwise the kids are cute enough and their lack of acting chops are more or less easy to overlook, though it’d be preferable if overlooking them weren’t necessary in the first place.
As has been the case with his previous two films (especially Knocked Up), this movie is a bit too long, feeling as if Apatow never had an idea he deemed unfit for his theatrical cut. The pacing is pretty good overall, but there’s definitely a point at the start of the third act when the film comes to a screeching halt. It picks back up shortly after this, thankfully, and redeems itself with a resolution that feels realistic and not at all forced, sufficiently redeeming itself of this slight divergence.
I should also mention the pleasant surprise/slight disappointment that was afforded by Funny People‘s trailer. I loved finding that several of the jokes in the trailer were not in the film, allowing for a fresher first-viewing experience than you’re normally afforded with a movie that’s marketed as a comedy. I was a little disappointed, however, to find that the “jam session” scene (featuring Jon Brion, who I’m always a fan of) used a different song than that depicted in the trailer. I thought that Ringo Starr’s “Photograph” really fit the tone of the film perfectly, but it was used solely as a marketing device, rather than as an integral part of the movie. Small point to pick.
Apatow is almost doomed, in a way, to fight an uphill battle as a director, having hit a solid home run in his first directorial at-bat with The 40 Year Old Virgin. Funny People isn’t quite as good, but it’s damn close, and hopefully a sign that there’s still a lot left in the tank that is the comedic mind of Judd Apatow. He has yet to disappoint.