But seriously, folks…
Director: Judd Apatow
Writer: Judd Apatow
Cast: Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman
Since creating the brilliant, but ill-fated television show Freaks And Geeks in 1999 Judd Apatow has risen to become a new titan of comedy and not undeservedly so. His two films so far (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up) were massive hits filled with gross-out humour, characters stuck in adolescence and an emotional core stronger than many of their peers. Continuing the growing trend visible in those films Funny People continues to plumb for even deeper emotions here, not to mention from many different characters. Clocking in at 146 minutes it’s nothing if not ambitious. Far and away his most mature film, if also his most flawed.
The story follows two men. One is Ira Wright (skinny Seth Rogen), a struggling stand-up comic in LA living with his friends Mark (Jason Schwartzman) and Leo (Jonah Hill), who are also comics (but less struggling). The other is
Adam Sandler George Simmons (Sandler), comedian and star of a number of insipid low-brow comedies. After seeing him perform George hires Ira to write jokes for him and to be his assistant and the two form a strange, tumultuous relationship. George has just discovered he has a rare form of leukemia and is trying to reconnect with the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann) who is married to hyper Australian (Eric Bana). However when he learns his disease has disappeared George finds a new sense of purpose and that’s when things start getting weird.
The film finds it’s footing quickly with Rogen, Schwartzman and Hill playing three generally good guys beginning to get a glance at success, how it informs their decisions and how petty they are willing to get in order to have it. Schwartzman especially, who is normally known for his more sensitive characters does a great job of playing your marginally successful friend who has all but adorned a crown since gaining some leverage over you. As you would expect the trio have some great chemistry, but refreshingly the “friends” are developed characters, not just there for jokes like in Apatow’s previous films. Rogen too shouldn’t be overlooked as this is probably his most understated but truthful performance yet, a happy return from the manic stoner of Pineapple Express. Here he doesn’t play the role “big”, but self-reflexively which, in turn makes the drama more engaging and the jokes much funnier. I also have to say how excited I was by Aubrey Plaza’s cutely deadpan portrayal of Ira’s love interest Daisy. Apatow has faced criticisms that he can’t write good female characters and I can’t help but feel Daisy was a response to that. It’s a small role, but adds something thought-provoking to the story. And I’m in love with her.
I’m sure Sandler jumped at the opportunity to play a character who so closely resembles himself and perhaps that’s why he finds such truth in George Simmons. The filmmakers really went to extravagant and hilarious lengths to show us excerpts from his fictional movies, I assume to make fun of Sandler’s own (often) comically dismal filmography (they actually use some of his stand up). The writing is smart while dealing with such well-worn subject matter as someone slowly dying. The juxtaposition of Torsten Voges’ compassionate Dr. Lars to evasive Simmons shows Simmons’ inability to deal with things as a normal human being might. Also to Apatow’s credit the news of George’s disease does not make the world stop like in many movies, but shows him having to deal with all the banal minutiae as if it were any other day and all of a sudden we see Sandler’s character completely alone amidst so much success. Unprepared for this, Ira becomes George’s only confidante which both enriches and sometimes destroys the relationship between the two. But what pulled me in more than George’s quest to reclaim genuine happiness in his life through his pursuit of Laura was the careful tone building slowly through the movie of Ira’s opinion of George. George is who Ira wants to be at first, but slowly has to reconsider what really constitutes a full life and how much he really wants to be like like him. Ironically George knows this better than Ira and the best scene in the film for me falls right in the middle where Sandler delivers a thanksgiving speech to Ira’s friends who may not fully understand what he is trying to convey.
And then there is the inexplicable third act. Once Ira and George arrive at Laura’s house in Merrin County this movie derails. It enters into some very predictable territory that sees the characters doing some ridiculous and unmotivated things. The movie is between 30 and 40 minutes too long and most of that is in the third act. There is a downright dumb scene at an airport and is promptly followed by a monologue by Eric Bana that really falls flat at the one moment when it really needs to mean something. Also watching Apatow’s home video of his daughter singing a song from Cats just makes me feel uncomfortable. I know what it’s supposed to achieve and the performance is fantastic, but it just doesn’t have a place in a fictional narrative. I’m sure Judd’s got a sweet life, but don’t make us watch your home videos. They’re good, but just don’t. I feel weird. Don’t be that guy. The whole sequence in Merrin County felt like a different movie and it wasn’t over fast enough. The lone highlight was the Deer Hunter joke which actually made me let out an embarrassing sort of “yalp!” I regretted immediately.
The movie largely redeems itself for this misstep at the end seeing Ira’s routine take shape, but don’t expect a traditional ending like Apatow’s last two films delivered. Two other saving graces of this films are the beautiful shots by Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s cinematographer of choice and the selection of a few iconic songs, especially those by the late Warren Zevon.
I fear that this film may be a disappointment to many fans of Apatow’s so far. It’s funny, but it’s not that funny. And maybe it’s not supposed to be. Funny People doesn’t succeed like his other films, but at the same time it’s about so much more and he is a man in control of his art and taking risks, which I admire. Not an elite filmmaker by any means, but I see a still-growing talent in Judd Apatow and can’t wait to see what he does next. I guess what I’m trying to say is “stay for the veal”…
… ah, I don’t get no respect!
Great Moment: Sarah Silverman’s vagina impression