I always figured that comedians were the best kind of people to hang around with as a kid. Hearing them tell funny stories, making joke after joke, happiness always seemed served up to them on a silver platter. But times goes on, and we come to see these same people as clowns on the outside, but crying a river in the inside. Comedy from these people comes from a deep pain and sadness in their lives, or out of a deep seated anger they have at the world around them.
Look at Richard Pryor, need I say more? Rich had all the money, women, cars, and drugs you could ever ask for. For “Superman III,” he ended up getting more money than Christopher Reeve did. Yet he said while he was in his 40’s that the last truly happy moment he remembers in his life was when he was jumping around in the dirt while pretending to be a cowboy at the age of 10. This guy set himself on fire, and he played that for laughs while performing live at the Sunset Strip! Comedy was his constant weapon against pain, and he never held anything back.
“Funny People” understands very well this gloomy realm many comedians have to survive in, and is written and directed by the current king of comedy movies (and who was once a standup comic himself), Judd Apatow. But unlike “The 40-Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” this one has a darker edge to it, and it doesn’t hide away from the inherent viciousness of its characters. “Funny People” has been advertised as a comedy drama, but the balance often veers more to the dramatic. But not to worry, there are some great laughs to be found here.
The movie stars Adam Sandler as George Simmons, a comedian turned movie star not unlike Sandler himself. George became famous in such movies as “Merman” where he is a male mermaid, and “Re-do” in which he plays a character whose body has transformed into that of an infant. That the digitally inserted Adam’s head on to a baby’s body at once gives us a great sight gag, but then we all cannot help but think how pathetic a premise that is. By now, we have had more than enough of talking babies!
Simmons has it all: a beautiful mansion overlooking the sea, a swimming pool he does laps in on a regular basis, great cars, women who don’t hesitate to sleep with him (even if they have boyfriends), and all the money he could live off of for the rest of his life. But in his eyes, we see that he is a sad man who has come to truly despise himself for what he has become. All the wealth he has amassed only serves to isolate him from the rest of the world and it makes him defensive around total strangers who cannot see him as a regular person. But now, he hears from his doctor that he has a terminal disease and has only months left to live. Simmons reacts to this news as if someone drained his blood in a heartbeat, and it makes him clearly see just how much he hates his life. So now he has to make every minute count, but that may not alter his antagonistic personality from where it currently resides.
This may very well be Adam Sandler’s best performance date, and its right up there with his brilliant turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love.” Adam never backs down from the fact that George Simmons is a hard man to like on a personal level. During the movie, he is dismissive to many around him, and he ends up being thoughtlessly mean to those who look up to him. Yet somehow Sandler manages to make you empathize (if not sympathize) with this character and of the inevitable diagnosis that has just been thrust upon him. It’s the moments where Sandler lets it show through his eyes just how full of regret Simmons has become.
Along with this famous comedian on this cynical farewell tour of is Ira Wright, an aspiring young comic who is not entirely confident with the routine he has put together for himself, and he is played by Seth Rogen. George catches Ira’s act one night after he does his thing onstage, and it ends up involving how Simmons bombed big time moments before. Nevertheless, George finds that he likes some of what Ira is doing, and he offers to pay him some money to write up some jokes for a MySpace benefit show he is contracted to do. Soon after the show, George ends up hiring Ira as his personal assistant, a job that is more work than your average 9 to 5 working environment.
Remember all those nasty horror stories from people who were assistants to the stars? Well, Ira may have gotten off easy compared to those people, but we fear that Ira’s soul will become forever crushed the longer he stays with George who has him sitting next to his bed and having Ira talk and talk until he finally falls asleep. From the looks of it, it takes at least hour, maybe even longer to accomplish that difficult feat.
In a lot of ways, Ira Wright is they typical kind of character that Seth Rogen has played over and over again in movies, and not just the ones he does with Judd Apatow. While I would love to see Rogen take on more risky roles like the one he played recently in the deeply twisted comedy “Observe and Report,” he is the perfect match for Sandler’s endlessly cynical misanthrope of a movie star. By the movie’s end, Rogen proves to us all that his performance is the most underrated in the film. As Ira Wright, he believably takes this character from lacking confidence in himself to finding his voice with each stand up routine he does after the other. Rogen makes the transition feel seamless to where it’s not hard to believe in him when he faces down Simmons and the fact that his mortal dilemma has not succeeded in changing him as a person. Ira becomes the movie’s heart and moral compass as he comes to tell this miserable movie star what he needs to hear as opposed to what he wants to hear.
But the one person who almost ends up stealing “Funny People” out from under these big name actors is Judd Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann. Having already proved what a comedy dynamo she was in her husband’s previous films, there should be no more talk from those who believe she has only gotten this far as an actress because of nepotism. But if that were the case (theoretically speaking), then her work here is ripe for a very compelling argument for it.
Leslie plays Laura, and George Simmons describes her to Ira as “the one that got away.” Laura was and still is the true love of George, and he finds that she still yearns for him even though their relationship came to a heartbreaking end when he cheated on her. This has become a moment that Simmons appears to regret more than any other, and it is one he truly would like to make up for as soon as he can. Laura never tries to hide her character’s undying affection for this loneliest of men, and she is willing to end her marriage to an Australian soccer nut (Eric Bana is hilarious). As Laura, Leslie Mann succeeds in making you fall this character even while she selfishly tries to redirect her life while not immediately realizing the consequences of doing so.
There are a lot of strong elements working in favor for “Funny People,” but it doesn’t quite change the fact that it is a flawed movie. While it is good and worth watching, it will most likely be seen as Judd Apatow’s weakest movie to date. I do like the fact that Judd is heading in a slightly different direction with this movie compared to what he has done before, but the balance between comedy and drama is off kilter most of the time. For a lot of people, I don’t think it will be entirely clear as to whether they are watching something comic or very serious. The tone of the movie did become clearer to me as it went on, but still. “Funny People” was on my mind for awhile after I saw it, and it took some time to take in all that went on with these odd characters.
Plus, at over two hours long, this movie really could have been shorter. Usually, I’m cool with long movies but only if they can justify their excessive length. It is way too easy to come off as self-indulgent when making a 3 hour epic. “Funny People” isn’t way too long, but the length does cut deeply into the film’s comic momentum, and there were spots where it dragged more than it should have. It does pick up towards the end, but the story still could have used a bit more tightening.
Still, I really did like “Funny People” because Judd Apatow still succeeds in giving us characters and situations that (while not always entirely realistic) feel very real on an emotional level. So far he has only made 3 movies, but he still remains one of today’s masters of film comedies. With him taking his established formulas in a different direction, it is clear that Apatow’s work will continue to grow with his future projects.
I also love the brilliant cameos he manages to extract from big celebrities in his films. One scene in “Funny People” has Sandler meeting a lot of famous comedians of today and yesterday including Norm McDonald, Andy Dick (wow), Charles Fleischer, Collin Quinn, and Sarah Silverman (who has one of the movie’s best laugh out loud moments). But the biggest surprise to be found here is that Judd got Eminem of all people to do a cameo here, and it was kick seeing him tell Ray Romano to get lost (“I thought everyone loved you!”).
One other perception that needs to be cleared up about “Funny People” is that it is not a “disease movie.” You know, the ones you see every other week with the main character regretting what he has done in life, ends up making amends to those he hurt, and who ends up redeeming himself before he croaks at the movie’s climax. It is really to Judd Apatow’s credit here that he never ever gets all mushy on us like many others would have. Sandler’s character arc here is much like Michael Keaton’s in “Clean and Sober.” In the process of trying to improve themselves and become better people, they end up fooling themselves and never actually change until they truly hit rock bottom. Their attempts to help those in desperate situations reveal them to be selfish in their own desires to become better, and they just get worse. It is not until the end of each movie that these characters really look in the mirror and see who they really need to help, themselves. The climax has them taking their first real step on the road to becoming better people.
Despite its flaws, “Funny People” is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t go in with the normal set of expectations you have for an Apatow production because things are a little different here. It definitely has some hilarious moments as well as effectively dramatic ones, and Adam Sandler makes it clear that he can be a great actor if given the right kind of role. It is also an intimate look at the fame and success one person experiences, and of how damaging and isolating it can be. But with George Simmons, there is still is a chance for him to become a better person and not just die off the way John Belushi did (he is still missed).
This project was really a long time coming for both Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler because they had shared an apartment together when they first moved out to Los Angeles. “Funny People” actually starts off with home video footage of them making prank phone calls that has each of them laughing in hysterics. It is meant to be a look of innocence that fame changes forever, but at least we can see that in real life, these two funny men have their families to keep their egos in balance. George Simmons is simply the person each of them would have become if they weren’t careful.
*** out of ****