It’s a well known fact that comedians get their comedy from pain. Richard Pryor was able to joke about his drug abuse, his numerous marriages, his heart attack, and running down the street engulfed in flames, and audiences laughed right along with him. I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s because if they don’t laugh, then they will cry, and crying is a lot less fun. I worry, however, that it comes at too high a cost. Are comedians using humor as a form of therapy, or are they trying to sidestep the problem and not deal with their emotions? In “Funny People,” successful comedian/actor George Simmons (Adam Sandler) learns that he has a rare form of leukemia, and his one shot at beating it is a series of experimental drugs that come with no guarantees; all of a sudden, everything in his life becomes a struggle, and what’s worse, he doesn’t have the tools necessary to cope. He can’t even joke about himself in front of an audience.
“Funny People” is Judd Apatow’s most engaging film yet–funny and surprisingly heartfelt, with believable characters and a carefully structured screenplay. It might not have worked were it not for Sandler, who doesn’t play George as a terminally ill cliché but as a person we actually have sympathy for. In spite of his fame and fortune, in spite of the many films he has starred in (mostly lowbrow entertainment), he’s not in a relationship and he has no real friends to speak of. He all but forgot about his family after moving to Los Angeles. Now he’s told he may not have very long to live, and all he can do is keep telling jokes. It doesn’t seem to be helping, however; underneath it all, he’s lonely and desperate. The more he re-evaluates his life, the more he realizes how unfulfilling it has been.
He soon meets an up-and-coming standup comedian named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who sleeps on a sofabed in the apartment of another comedian (Jonah Hill) and an actor (Jason Schwartzman). Quiet and good-natured yet equally desperate, his jokes are really no better or worse than those from your average raunchy teen sex comedy. Nevertheless, after hearing some of his material, George hires Ira as his comedy writer. He does tell Ira about his condition, but that doesn’t mean he considers Ira a friend; even with the possibility of death hanging over him, George continues to be the same self-serving man he has always been. The only difference is that now, his needs are greater–as he lies in bed trying to fall asleep, for example, he forces Ira to sit in a chair directly next to the bed and tell funny stories. It seems George wants that human contact without the added hassle of emotional attachment, which is all well and good until the other person begins to feel manipulated.
The anger and bitterness notwithstanding, it can’t be denied that George is bonding with Ira–becoming his mentor, if you will. It also can’t be denied that Ira, despite being younger and less experienced, is helping George go through the process of finding peace in his life, of getting him to see what’s really important. He knows early on that George must reach out to family and friends for emotional support, even if he’s not ready for it. There’s only so much Ira can do, and it’s not as if he has gone through anything like this (“All my grandparents are still alive,” he muses, trying his best not to cry). But who can George turn to? How can he ask for support when he has shown love to so few people?
As it turns out, there has been only one person George has truly loved: His ex-girlfriend, Laura (Leslie Mann), who now lives in Marin County, California with a husband and two children. In spite of the events that led to their breakup, Laura still has feelings for George, and they only intensify when she learns that he’s sick. But can she leave her husband, an Australian businessman named Clarke (Eric Bana)? He’s not a perfect man; his temper certainly isn’t always under control. In many ways, he’s exactly like George, which is probably what attracted Laura to him in the first place. But the fact remains: She has a life with him. And yes, she does love him. What can George do at this point? How can Ira make him see that it would be in his best interest to let Laura go?
In spite of the fact that much of the creative team have known each other for years (Apatow and Sandler were once roommates, Apatow is married to Mann, Rogen has been cast in all of Apatow’s films), the reality is that every actor in “Funny People” is perfectly cast, which is good because it makes the story that much more compelling. Sandler and Rogen give their best performances to date–the former continues to refine the raw emotions he utilized in “Punch Drunk Love” and “Reign Over Me,” while the latter reveals a subtler, more relatable side to his personality. They add considerable depth to a film that easily could have been just another formulaic buddy story. This is only Apatow’s third film, so we probably have yet to see his greatest achievement. But this will do for now.
– Chris Pandolfi (www.GoneWithTheTwins.com)