Funny People (2009)

15 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

With a title like “Funny People,” a writer/director like Judd Apatow, and a cast that features actors/comedians like Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, and Aziz Ansari, you would expect this movie to be as raunchy and as funny as Apatow’s other writing and directing works like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” or his productions such as “Superbad” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Well, there certainly is raunch and humor in “Funny People,” but at the surface is a story of pure drama. Many of the characters in this movie are stand-up comedians, and everyone else is in some other sort of show business (like a sitcom), but the characters are all hostile towards each other—while showing friendship as well as dealing with life issues—and the story is mainly about how life off screen or off stage is every bit as difficult as is it is on screen or on stage.

“Funny People” is probably the closest Apatow has gotten to digging deeper into what his characters are going through. Each of his movies had plenty of humor but enough realism to show their lives. This film goes the extra mile. The result—an uneven but mostly endearing movie about how these “funny people” live their lives.

Adam Sandler delivers his best work in the leading role, and that’s saying something, considering his great work in dramatic roles such as “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Spanglish,” aside from his usual shtick in his juvenile-minded comedies. He plays a stand-up comedian named George Simmons. He enlivens the stage and has a huge fan base, but his life isn’t as lively. He lives alone in a big mansion, barely has any friends, and could possibly have bipolar disorder. Women fall to his feet and men have their cell phones ready to take pictures of him whenever he sees him. The problem is he’s all alone in living this celebrity’s dream. Things get worse when he hears the news from a doctor that he has a rare blood disease that’s killing him.

Enter Ira (Seth Rogen), an aspiring comic who lives with his buddies, one of which (played by Jason Schwartzman, who’s very funny here) is a self-indulgent TV sitcom lead, who is so proud of his moderate success that he leaves his paycheck on Ira’s pillow. (Jonah Hill plays the other roommate.) Ira is forced to follow George Simmons’ stand-up comedy act one night, but it comes easy, since George is so depressed that he literally dies on stage, while no one suspects that he’s dying in real life. Ira uses George’s somewhat-failure to his advantage, and that leads George to hire Ira to write some material for him to use. Later, though, Ira is the only one who knows of George’s sickness.

What follows is actually a well-told story of how George deals with his disease and how the relationship between George and Ira develops. There’s humor, but there are also some really touching moments here—George’s meltdown when he realizes he can’t waste another minute, George’s confiding in Ira, and the people from his life whom he comes to contact with. One of those people is the “one that got away”—a woman named Laura (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife) who despite everything still loves George and wants to spend some time with him, now that he’s dying.

All of this is well-told. Sandler does a terrific job of showing the dark side of this stand-up comic who faces his own mortality. Sometimes, he’ll look at it with a laugh, but like everybody, he’ll ponder his life and dread the end. The movie shows a nice job of showing parts of his career—for example, we see posters and clips of George Simmons’ movies that, believe it or not, look actually worse than the actual Adam Sandler comedies. One of them features him as a man-baby, with his head on a baby’s body, and another features him as a half-man, half-fish (a merman). I should also note the way this movie opens—it opens with home-video footage of George making crank calls with his college buddies (the footage was shot by Apatow himself and the buddies were actually Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo). This is funny because Sandler thinks it’s so funny, he’s enjoying what he’s doing and his friends are laughing uproariously as he does it. Then the movie starts and you see George many years later, alone in bed and tired. Times have changed. He has no one to share the laughs with. This is the life he leads now that he’s become rich and famous. It lets you know right away that “Funny People” isn’t merely a comedy. It’s saying something serious about fame.

Not to say the entire movie is serious. There are plenty of funny moments in this movie to balance the dramatic moments. There’s Adam Sandler’s guitar-playing mocking of Ira’s former last name (it’s spelt Weiner, but pronounced Whiner), James Taylor briefly mocking Ira’s sense of humor at a MySpace party, Jonah Hill’s description of how a popular video can lead to something more, Jason Schwartzman’s self-indulgence, and more pleasantries.

All of the actors do fine work. Seth Rogen does a surprising turn because he isn’t playing the loud, anxious best friend role that made him famous in Apatow’s movies like “40-Year-Old Virgin.” I’ve seen him play that role in many other movies and while he is funny and entertaining to watch, it’s so refreshing to see him actually try to act in this movie. And he does a convincing job. I bought Rogen as this bashful, clueless, good-hearted comic who tries to make George feel good about himself in his remaining days. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman crack several one-liners; they’re very funny here. Also notably funny is the deadpan presence of Aubrey Plaza, a mousy female comic whom Ira has a crush on. Oh, I almost forgot about Aziz Ansari—he plays another desperate stand-up comic and while Ansari’s role is brief, he makes the most of it.

“Funny People” has all the material for a movie that deserves four stars. Unfortunately, this is only the first half of the movie. And from this part, I’d like to issue a SPOILER ALERT! Even though a major plot point I haven’t discussed yet is shown in the film’s trailers, I won’t take any chances. So finish the review right here and see the movie for yourself, but I should warn you the movie is two hours and twenty-six minutes long and when you realize why that is when you watch the movie, come back and read the review.

For those of you who stayed, I’m about to go into the second half of “Funny People,” which is surely less successful than the first half. It begins with George learning that he’s actually beat his disease. Actually, that could have been the end of the movie. I felt like I’ve seen the end of a movie as Ira yells in delight that George is cured. But no, there’s a little more than an hour left to watch. All that time leads to George’s new affair with Leslie Mann’s Laura. Laura learns that George is well and still has these feelings for George, but the problem is she’s married to an Australian hunk (Eric Bana). But he’s on the road most of the time, and George finds it more appropriate—to himself, anyway—to pay her a visit at her house, dragging Ira along with him. It’s an overnight that eventually becomes longer, much to the concern of Ira and to Laura’s two young daughters (played by Apatow’s and Mann’s real-life daughters, both of whom were also in “Knocked Up”).

The movie just becomes more of a family melodrama and becomes less of what has followed before. It only gets more complicated as Bana returns home and has his suspicions of George’s visit. I wanted George and Ira to just leave the house and go back to where the more interesting characters and story developments were.

What I’m getting at is that “Funny People” is a missed opportunity for a really great movie, and I feel like I’ve seen Apatow’s special “director’s cut” than the actual movie that, when you get down to it, was really the first half of the movie, which is so rich and funny and insightful that you wonder if Apatow could have saved the stuff with Laura’s family for a “Knocked Up” spinoff.

“Funny People” ends with a conclusion that is satisfying enough that you feel like you’ve enjoyed spending time with these characters. You may be relieved to go home, but at least, you have things to think about, related to most of what you’ve seen. The movie does have pacing issues and you wonder why the editors couldn’t have cut a few minutes out of certain scenes, but as it is, “Funny People” is a smart, endearing comedy/drama and is probably the closest Apatow has ever done as a writer and director to telling a real story. Apatow has made himself known as the modern king of comedy, and I always look forward to his next movie, whether it’d be one that he wrote or directed himself or simply one he produced (because he puts in his own creativity as well as the writers of those projects, and you always recognize it). “Funny People” is a near-triumph, but good enough. Oh, and did I mention that George dismissed absolutely everything he may have learned from his near-death experience? How often does that happen in a drama that features cancer? Just thought I’d point that out at the very end of this review.

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