Funny People (United States, 2009)

July 29, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Funny People Poster

It's written and directed by Judd Apatow and stars Adam Sandler and Seth Rogan, so it must be funny, right? The problem with expectations is that they can lead to disappointment. That's not to say Funny People is devoid of humor - in fact, there are some genuinely funny bits sprinkled throughout. However, Funny People represents an attempt by Apatow to broaden the real estate of the orifice into which he has become pigeonholed. His previous two directorial efforts, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, have frequently been labeled as ribald romantic comedies - films whose sweet cores are hidden by copious layers of profanity and frank sexual discourse. Funny People is a different sort of movie, because it's more of a drama, and an uncomfortable one at that, than it is a comedy. Any relationships, whether male/female romances or male/male bonding, are secondary to Apatow's fascination with the travails of a misanthrope who is living under a death sentence. The movie will challenge Apatow fans and Sandler devotees. It's a brave move that is partially undone by pacing problems and a lack of focus. Despite having obviously been cut to bring down the running length, Funny People still clocks in at nearly 2 1/2 hours, and that's too long for these characters to sustain audience interest. The movie wears thin its welcome a couple of reels before Apatow has finished telling his story.

Movie star and stand-up comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is an unpleasant sort of person who becomes even more self-absorbed when he is told that the rare blood disorder from which he suffers will soon claim his life. George is stunned by this news and isn't sure how to absorb it. He tries calling Laura (Leslie Mann), the one true love of his life who dumped him more than a decade ago after he slept with another woman, but all he can manage are a few lame apologies. Then he decides to debut a new, dark standup routine on an unsuspecting audience. That's where he meets Ira (Seth Rogan), a would-be comedian who is in awe of this living legend. George, who is either desperately lonely or genuinely impressed by Ira's material (or a combination thereof), offers Ira a job as his personal assistant/joke writer. It's too good a position to refuse. But George is not the good-natured guy he appears to be from afar, and Ira gets a close-up view of a self-centered individual who would ruin a marriage for personal satisfaction.

Apatow is an expert juggler when it comes to tone and thematic content, but he has too many balls in the air here. The comedy is uneven. Some of the stand-up scenes are painfully unfunny. (Does anyone think James Taylor saying "Fuck Facebook" to an audience of MySpace shareholders is worthy of more than halfhearted chuckle?) A lot of these routines remind me of how little boys think four-letter words are hilarious. For adults, however, a string of profanity in and of itself is not funny; the humor comes from how it's set up and employed. There are times when the stand-up scenes don't get this. On the other hand, there's some very funny stuff to be found in the movie. There's the scene in which Sandler and Rogan confront the "Die Hard doctor." Sandler has some stinging one-liners and there's a brilliant scene featuring cameos by Eminem and Ray Romano. ("Doesn't everyone love you?")

Overall, however, Funny People is pretty grim. Not only is it wearying to spend 2 1/2 hours in the company of a bipolar, self-absorbed creep, but the story is told in a choppy, uneven manner. For a while, it appears that Funny People will balance things out between George and Ira. For the first half of the movie, Ira holds George's hand and becomes his only friend as he copes with his mortality. Some time is spent developing Ira's character - he's given a love interest (Aubrey Plaza) and two roommates (Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman). There's a buddy vibe. Then, things are suddenly all about George and Laura re-kindling their long-dormant love, with Ira being shunted to one side, held in reserve to baby-sit Laura's kids and spearhead the contrivance that allows the movie to arrive at the climactic confrontation that brings everything to a head.

Being long-winded is not a new problem for Apatow. Both of his previous movies were longer than they needed to be and they were then stretched further on DVD by the inclusion of deleted material. Funny People exceeds the extended editions of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up by nearly15 minutes, and there's more that could have been added. Some of the connective tissue is missing (such as the explanation for why Laura, who is angry and dismissive during her first conversation with George, agrees to see him upon learning he's sick - or how she even finds out about this since there's no public announcement). Funny People is in desperate need of some tightening. There's some good material here, but the movie also rambles a lot. There are times when it doesn't seem sure where it's going and isn't in a hurry to get there.

Kudos to Adam Sandler, who has resurrected and refined the character he portrayed in Punch-Drunk Love. This is another indication that Sandler is becoming restless appearing in the moronic comedies that have become his signature. He is capable of more and movies like this give him a chance to show it. George is dislikeable and his near-death experience does not reveal some great cosmic truth. He has moments of humanity and these allow him to be more than a caricature, but this is not a man one can trust or rely upon. Sandler often plays unpleasant individuals with some element of decency beneath the surface. In a way, George is a variation on a theme - take the usual Sandler persona and remove the "decency," and this is the result. Audiences rebelled to see that in Punch-Drunk Love and the reaction may be similar here. Maybe there's enough low-brow humor and profanity to keep certain elements of Sandler's core group interested.

After shocking audiences with his no-holds barred interpretation of a vile mall security guard in Observe and Report, Seth Rogan is back in more familiar territory, although the movie does his character a disservice by setting Ira up to be a co-equal to George then relegating him to supporting duties for the second half. Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife, is given a more substantive role than the one she had in Knocked Up, although it's questionable whether this portrayal will answer questions about misogynistic undertones some have detected in Apatow's films. Mann and Apatow's daughters play the offspring of Laura and her always-traveling husband, Clarke (Eric Bana). Aubrey Plaza is underused as Ira's would-be girlfriend, Daisy. (This subplot deserves considerably more screen time than it is accorded.) And Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman represent Ira's wisecracking friends/roommates - a staple ingredient in Apatow films.

Funny People's tone is odd, as if George Carlin had script doctored a screenplay written by Ingmar Bergman. It's not inherently uninteresting but it can be off-putting and the film's indefensible length turns what could have been an intriguing experiment into something that too often feels like an endurance contest. In the end, Apatow can't quite bring all the elements together. The last film that left me conflicted and believing there was something good to be found in the debris was Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown. It's refreshing to see Apatow branching out and trying something off the beaten path but, in this case, his sense of ambition may have caused him to lose his way.

Funny People (United States, 2009)

Director: Judd Apatow
Cast: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Aubrey Plaza
Screenplay: Judd Apatow
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Music: Michael Andrews, Jason Schwartzman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 2009-07-31
MPAA Rating: "R" (Frequent Profanity, Sexual Situations, Brief Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1