By Don Simpson | July 31, 2009
Director: Judd Apatow
Writer(s): Judd Apatow
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman
George (Adam Sandler) is not much different from the real-life Sandler. After enjoying countless years of success as a comedian and movie star, George appears to have already reached the pinnacle of his career. There is no place to go but down. Unfortunately, that is not the least of his worries. George has been diagnosed with a rare and fatal strand of leukemia, in other words George has also already reached the pinnacle of his life (and for all you God-fearing people out there – he is destined to go down to hell).
After George performs a pitiful routine at the local stand-up comedy club, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) takes the stage and immediately pounces on his predecessor’s pathetic performance. George lingers in the audience long enough to suffer the wrath Ira’s verbally unbridled barrage. It is Darwinism at its most primal – the young and strong tearing apart the weak and dying elder for the purpose of success and survival in the cut-throat worlds of comedy and Hollywood.
George respects Ira’s voraciousness and requests that he become his writer and personal assistant. George also asks Ira to invite his roommate, friend and comedic cohort Leo (Jonah Hill) along; but Ira’s Darwinist nature kicks in once again as he immediately tramples any chances of Leo stealing his limelight. It is also worth noting that Ira and Leo are roommates in Mark’s (Jason Schwartzman) Hollywood apartment (Mark is the star of the lame-yet-successful sitcom Yo Teach). Ira, Leo and Mark are all friends (in some sense of the term) but success takes first priority in all of their lives – they take turns stabbing each other in their backs (or fronts) just to feel superior.
George and Ira’s relationship is equally tumultuous and hateful; like when Ira writes jokes for George then steals them right back, using them while opening up for George (the comedian’s equivalent of an opening band covering the headliner’s hit song). George is nice to Ira when he needs something (new jokes, to be lulled to sleep), but is otherwise verbally abusive. No matter how much nastiness is shared between the two of them, they need each other for their own selfish reasons – George has no one else to take care of him and Ira recognizes that George is his (one and only?) key to achieving the fame and fortune that he desires.
Ira and George each have romantic interests that fade in and out of plot. Daisy lives near the apartment that Ira shares with Leo and Mark. Ira has admired Daisy from afar but never had the balls to approach her. The girl-magnet Mark effortlessly lures Daisy into their apartment, presumably for Ira’s benefit; but Ira does not pounce on Daisy quick enough, so Mark pounces on her instead. Daisy is introduced to us as a dry and sarcastic comedian, and she appears to have some resemblance of intellect and free will (in other words, smart and independent enough to resist Mark); but that is all thrown to the waste side when she opts to bone Mark – she does so after having already scheduled a date with Ira to see Wilco. When Ira catches Mark and Daisy post-copulation, he essentially disowns both of them (brazenly laying into Daisy as if he owned her).
George, on the other hand, is able to score any woman at any time. However, they all only want a one-night stand; they don’t want a relationship with the star of Merman, they just want a story to tell to their friends. At some level this appears to hurt George, but on another level he seems to enjoy being able to bed any woman of his pleasing. But there is the one that got away (there always is) – Laura (Leslie Mann). George and Laura were engaged several years ago, but George relentlessly cheated on Laura and she eventually opted to move on. Now that George is faced with death, he wants to rekindle his relationship with Laura – even though Laura is married to Clarke (Eric Bana) and has two young children (played by Apatow and Mann’s real-life children, Maude and Iris Apatow). Laura is convinced that Clarke is cheating on her, so she seriously considers the idea of going back to George…which turns out to be the major crux of Funny People.
Very long story short (Apatow’s epic clocks in at just under 150 minutes), there is very little that is funny about Funny People (that is unless you enjoy a relentless onslaught of dick and balls jokes). My initial reaction was disappointment in Apatow’s portrayal of the female characters in Funny People as weak and shallow (something that frustrated me with Knocked-Up and 40 Year Old Virgin as well) – but then I realized that all of the characters (male and female alike) are prime candidates for harsh scrutiny. All of the characters are mean-spirited and very unlikable for the mere purpose of becoming the brunt of someone else’s joke (and what goes around comes around) – is this Apatow’s jaded opinion of Hollywood and or the world of comedy? It is a hateful, shallow and disrespectful world that they live in.
Did Apatow ever intend Funny People to be a comedy? I do not think that he did (but if he did, he failed miserably). Other than the dick and balls jokes, Funny People attempts to be far more dramatic than anything Apatow has ever worked on. Apatow deserves some kudos for attempting a story of this nature and stature; but unfortunately he could not control the overly ambitious plot (which veers off on innumerable meandering and aimless tangents and could have been trimmed down by at least 30-45 minutes).
Apatow attempts to use his typical comedic conventions and talents in the dramatic setting of Funny People – so Funny People plays like a drama that was written and directed by someone who specializes in comedy. Apatow continues to fall back on gags and one-liners, but because of the serious nature of the plot many of the gags and one-liners fall flat (gags and one-liners may hold together some comedies, but they cannot support a dramatic story). In other words, by directing and writing a drama like a comedy only turned the drama into a comedy – and the subjects, situations and characters of Funny People do not work in a comedic setting.
Sandler, on the other hand, has never been more critically successful than his other foray into serious drama (Punch-Drunk Love); and he deserves even greater critical recognition for his tear-jerking turn in Funny People. Don’t get me wrong, Punch-Drunk Love is a far superior film; but Sandler’s performance in Funny People is even stronger than what he did in Punch-Drunk Love. Sandler once again proves that he is not just a funny person – and those of us who detest his low brow brand of comedy are thankful for that!
Most disappointingly, Rogen and the supporting cast are all stuck in their traditional molds, playing the same old characters that they always play. The tone of the story has changed, but the players have remained exactly the same.