30 August 2009
In a movie called Funny People, you expect the people in it to be, well, funny. There are flashes of it—the natural comedic talents of the people involved won’t stay hidden forever—but maybe the inherent unlikability of the characters is part of the point of Judd Apatow’s third directorial effort.
The movie concerns George Simmons, an Adam Sandler-like comedy superstar, conveniently played by Adam Sandler, whose esteemed resume includes titles like Merman and Re-Do, in which his head is placed on a baby. George is a miserable, manipulative man who sleeps with a different girl (or two) every night and has an ego that desperately needs regular attention.
Then a doctor diagnoses him with a form of leukemia and ... nothing changes. He uses his likely fatal illness to reconnect with Laura (Leslie Mann), the one who got away years earlier because he cheated on her. She’s now married, with two kids.
George also goes back to his roots as a standup comic, though his material has taken a dark, depressing turn. He takes an odd liking to young comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who goes on after him one night at a comedy club and cracks a few jokes at his expense.
George hires Ira to write jokes for him and to be his personal assistant, performing tasks like getting him soda and talking him to sleep. He also wants to hire Leo (Jonah Hill), one of Ira’s roommates, to write jokes, but Ira fails to pass along that information.
First, the good: Sandler, as he showed in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), has a real actor inside of him. Maybe it’s simply a matter of trust between him and the director—he and Apatow were roommates long before either became a star—that encouraged him to open up. George never expresses dissatisfaction with his many juvenile films—maybe Sandler feels the same way about his own career, but he at least pokes a little fun at himself. And though it is exacerbated in the movie by the disease, he must connect in some way with the strangely isolated life of a celebrity like George, someone who others expect to be funny at all times.
Now, the bad: Apatow, who also wrote the screenplay and produced, fails to find a way to mix this serious, dramatic material with his standard raunchy brand of humor. The movie lists about with little narrative trajectory, lacking rhythm and a reason for us to invest ourselves in George’s well-being. It feels awkward—though that might be the life of “funny people” when the lights go down, it’s not exactly compelling viewing.
Apatow allows some time to hang out his actors—particularly Rogen, Hill and Jason Schwartzman as the third roommate, Mark, star of the hilariously awful NBC sitcom Yo Teach...! —but their riffing seems oddly subdued compared to what we saw in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.
Funny People suffers from a similar problem that plagued last year’s Pineapple Express, which Apatow produced and in which Rogen also starred. That movie was an action-comedy made by a bunch of people who had no idea how to make an action movie.
Funny People features a lot of funny people in front of and behind the camera. But aside from Sandler, surprisingly, they’re lost when it comes to drama. Though I applaud Apatow for branching out from his signature brand, it’s a move he wasn’t quite ready to make.
(Rated R for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality. 146 minutes.)