Title: Funny people
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Play time: 2
Director: Judd Apatow
Screenwriters: Judd Apatow
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann
Funny People suggests that the Judd Apatow himself is dissatisfied with the “Apatow formula” for which he is starting to take some flack. This is the weakest of the three films he has directed — though certainly not of the dozens he has produced — but its shortcomings feel like growing pains rather than diminishing returns. Like Knocked Up and The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Funny People is raunchy, warm, and generously funny, but it is also odd, with off-kilter, languid rhythms and plot threads that feint toward formula before veering off in unexpected directions. And it threatens to explore some truly uncomfortable territory before backing off in favor of an unsatisfying happy ending.
Apatow’s sharpest talent is taking a basic high concept and filling it with all manner of ludicrous, compelling detail, and Funny People is no exception. The set-up couldn’t be simpler, or frankly much less original: celebrity comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler gamely playing a thinly disguised version of himself) gets a death sentence of a medical diagnosis and finds himself rethinking his money-rich, people-poor existence. Into this uninspiring premise, Apatow tosses, in increasing order of weirdness: 1) a struggling comic named Ira Wright (a newly thin Seth Rogen) whom Simmons hires as joke-writer, flunky and confidant; 2) Ira’s overweight roommate Leo (Jonah Hill), a barely more successful comedian whose motto is “no one wants to laugh at a physically fit man”; 3) Ira and Leo’s third roommate Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman, absolutely perfect), who has recently found success as the star of a hideously cornball inspirational-teacher sitcom entitled Yo, Teach!; 4) the man whom Simmons’ ex-fiancée wound up marrying (Eric Bana), a crazy Australian jock who recommends that Simmons try holistic medicine.
All of this sounds like the recipe for a slightly sappier Knocked Up; a hip, goofy-sweet crowd-pleaser with a not-too-serious cancer angle and some stand up comic inside baseball. Parts of it are indeed familiar, most notably Seth Rogen’s witty everyman schtick, though this time he adds an interesting note of awed diffidence. But this time Apatow throws some curveballs that some of his fans may not appreciate.
Time and again, Funny People seems to be taking us in comfortable, predictable directions. Simmons asks both Ira and Leo to write jokes for him, but Ira hogs the gig, which must inevitably lead to a big confrontation between the two friends when Leo learns of the betrayal. Simmons gets some good news about his condition but neglects to mention it to the old flame he’s trying to rekindle (Leslie Mann), convinced that doing so will break his stride; she will surely find out, whereupon there will be hell to pay. The movie takes pains to set up Simmons’ daddy issues, down to having Simmons mutter that he spent his entire childhood trying to make his father laugh to no avail. Where can this lead but to a dramatic scene where George finally earns his father’s approval?
Not all of these expectations are entirely defied, but none of the subplots plays out the way you’d predict. One of them is triumphantly dispatched in a genius five-second scene that spares us a good twenty minutes of clichéd hand-wringing. By contrast, Apatow lingers on other scenes that aren’t obvious candidates for emphasis, partially to let his ensemble off its leash, and partially to keep us off-balance. Funny People doesn’t quite play like anything Apatow has ever made — or really like any aspiring blockbuster comedy I’ve ever seen. In parts, it’s gratifyingly loose and unpredictable.
The film’s last hour is unexpectedly thorny, as Apatow suggests that: a) the key to success in comedy is a narcissism that is insufferable in day-to-day life; b) not even an immensely traumatic near-death experience can cure someone of that narcissism. Then, on the verge of hitting one out of the park, the movie pulls back with a conventionally upbeat final scene that sends the audience out on a far more cheerful note than Funny People warrants.
There are other problems. As in Reign Over Me, Adam Sandler cannot handle a role this demanding, though he has a few intriguing moments. Years of dumbass juvenilia have taken their toll; he cannot make strong emotions seem sincere. And though the film is not painful by any means, two and a half hours is simply too long. Apatow’s films have often seemed inefficient and inartfully constructed; this is the case here as well, though the pacing does seem a bit more purposeful this time around.
Still, if Funny People is in absolute terms a step down from the intermittent genius of Knocked Up and The 40 Year-Old Virgin, it only makes me more curious about this filmmaker’s career. His success is now enabling him to take risks and construct his own visions. Funny People could be a trial run for something great.