My Favorite Movies – Funny People (2009)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

I love the art-imitates-life aspect of movies–it works for Sylvester Stallone in the “Rocky” movies, Mike Birbiglia in Sleepwalk With Me, Chris Rock in “Top Five,” and others. Judd Apatow allows that for actors, usually comedic actors–he gives them more of a chance to shine by giving them roles that are similar to themselves. (He’ll have them write their roles most of the time.)

For Adam Sandler, it’s a little different. In Apatow’s “Funny People,” Sandler plays a Hollywood star best known for standup comedy and some really, REALLY terrible comedic films. Sound familiar? Well…this Sandler character is a little different. Whereas Sandler in real life is a family man with lots of friends and a reputation for being one of the sweetest guys to work with in show business, George Simmons is lonely, with no real friends, and pretty much a standoffish jerk.

Why is Sandler playing this role so similar to himself and yet different from himself at the same time? I don’t know–but it’s interesting to think about.

“Funny People” is essentially a modern-day “Great Gatsby” tale. George Simmons is millionaire Jay Gatsby, and the Nick Carraway role is played here by Seth Rogen as aspiring writer/comedian Ira. Ira gets an opportunity to write for George, who has decided to get back into his standup act after being away from it for so long, and he becomes George’s personal assistant and later confidante. When things go from bad to worse for George, Ira has to be the one to get him to open himself up more to the people in his life.

George is diagnosed with a rare blood disease that’s slowly killing him, which causes him to reexamine his life. He even reaches out to an old flame, Laura (Leslie Mann), in hopes of reconnecting with her long after she’s settled down, gotten married, and had two kids. (She’s basically Daisy in this “Great Gatsby” parallel.) Upon hearing of his illness, Laura does reenter George’s life…which gets even more complicated when halfway through this two-and-a-half-hour film, George is suddenly better.

Btw, they gave this part away in the trailer–shame on those in charge of marketing this film for that! (Eh, I just gave it away too, so I’m not any better.)

The first half of “Funny People” has always been my favorite. It’s wonderfully written, very funny, very moving when it needs to be, and it showcases some of Adam Sandler’s best work as a serious actor. It’s one of my favorite Seth Rogen performances as well–he plays Ira as one of those aspiring artists who doesn’t quite have all the confidence he needs. There are also a lot of colorful supporting characters, such as Ira’s roommates, moderately successful comic Leo (Jonah Hill) and full-of-himself sitcom star Mark (Jason Schwartzman); Ira’s potential love interest, another standup comic named Daisy (Aubrey Plaza, playing it the best way Aubrey Plaza can); and Randy (Aziz Ansari), who is described by Apatow as “Souljah Boi as a standup comedian.” Also, upon watching this film again, is that Bo Burnham as one of Mark’s co-stars in “Yo Teach”?! (It is!!)

Funny People also looks GREAT–the cinematographer was Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s frequent DP, which would explain why this Apatow dramedy looks just like a Spielberg film.

The second half of the film is less successful, as George and Ira travel to Laura’s house in Marin County, which results in mistakes and consequences and a lot of misunderstandings and sad truths and arguments and… Part of me wants to interfere and bring George and Ira back to LA, where all the best stuff was.

BUT despite that, it is necessary to have this second half. Now that George has had a complete recovery, with no traces of the leukemia whatsoever anymore, where does he go from here? It would have been so easy to just end it with the good news–but the intriguing thing is, George was happier when he was dying. So, whatever lessons he learned, he completely forgets about. Why is this interesting? Because it works best as a cautionary tale for lonely, depressed, bipolar people (not just actors) who need the right people in their lives, or else they’re going to run cycles that take them down worse turns each time. (That’s what I get out of it, anyway.)

Plus, in this film’s second half, we have Eric Bana (whom Seth Rogen was previously praising in “Knocked Up” and now co-stars with here). He plays Laura’s husband, who doesn’t take too well to certain news. This character could have been boring, but thankfully, Bana has enough comedic chops to keep it interesting.

I’m still calling “Funny People” one of my favorites, because even though I prefer watching one half over the other, it still works as a whole because of the questions that are worth answering and discussing.

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