Saturday, August 1, 2009

Love: Funny People

It's hard to believe that Funny People is only the third film to actually be directed by producer/screenwriter extraordinaire Judd Apatow (40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up). After all, his name seems to be attached to everything these days and has become something of a comedy brand. Yet, here it is: number three.  For his junior effort, Apatow has shot a tremendously long, winding, All That Jazz-esque bromantic epic linked with Adam Sandler, another comedy brand.  As someone who has never been an Adam Sandler fan, I can tell you immediately and without hesitation that for me, this is probably the best acting I've ever seen him do (short of Punch Drunk Love, but this is a tad lighter). Funny People is actually funny, not consistently so, but what it lacks in its 2 1/2 hour run time it makes up for with actual story, no gimmicks.
Sandler plays George Simmons, a stand-up comedian turned ridiculous high-concept Hollywood star. George receives his death knell early on in the film; he has a rare form of leukemia. Without close friends or family, all of whom he shed with his increasing fame, Simmons starts taking experimental medication and sinking deeper and deeper into depressive narcissism. On a whim, he jumps back on the stand-up circuit and meets struggling, starstruck comedian Ira Wright (a slimmed down Seth Rogen), who he picks up as assistant and hired confidante. For the first half of the film, we are shown the growth of an accidental friendship between the two as Simmons attempts to come to terms with his own mortality and Wright deals with being a little fish suddenly confronted with tremendous opportunity. The interactions are a humorous blend of Sandler/Apatow comedy that works surprisingly well. There's a whole lotta scatological crudity and Sandler theatrics that manage to find tolerable footing in something very real and human.
This is the half of the film that works the best. The progression is steady, the writing is sharp, the characters are well-drawn portraits of actor folk trying their damndest at every level. Everyone Ira knows is working on becoming famous. His roommates, two guys who go out of their way to remind Ira of their marginal success (mostly on an unbearable sitcom called Yo, Teach!), are played believably by an especially smug Jason Schwartzman and a toned-down Jonah Hill. The girl Ira has a crush on (the amusingly dry Aubrey Plaza) is a stand-up comic girl next door. Everyone's an actor, everyone is flailing, everyone's got a sense of entitlement. No one is particularly likeable, but that's where the comedy comes from. Simmons is, for the most part, capable of being an unapologetic asshole at any time. He admits it. He takes the money, the swag, and the women who throw themselves at him. We're reminded of this on multiple occasions, the most memorable perhaps being a scene in which puppy dog Ira sits on the couch at George's house, watching TV, while just down the hall, a groupie who minutes earlier claimed she had a boyfriend takes it from behind. There are several points where, even if we know otherwise, George reminds Ira that he's an employee, not a friend. But that's the point, isn't it? Comedy is hard. Being 'on' all the time is tough. Funny people aren't so funny when you're the one dealing with their under pressure egos. George, as he learns he's got a fair shot at recovery, doesn't become a magically better person....just a more determined one.
This is where, for some, the film's issues will begin. The first and second halves of Funny People could essentially belong to two different movies. The first covers the struggles of friendship in Hollywood, the second we have a desperate attempt on George's part to recover the former love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann, aka, Mrs. Apatow). The problem? Laura's a married woman with two children (played by Apatow and Mann's daughters). The plot thickens. Basically, if you were wary of George's personality issues before, the second act will have that cleared up for you in a jiffy. Moral complexity aside, each scene remains entertaining and deftly rendered. Laura's Aussie husband is played by a delightfully comic Eric Bana, and the girls have clearly learned a thing or two about being precocious from their parents.  Problem is, it's just a little hard to escape that feeling that maybe the film never had to wander back to Laura in the first place. After extended periods of stand-up and industry insight, the weight of melodramatic affairs and marital disruptions brings with it something starkly unpleasant. For people accustomed to the brightness of Sandler's slapstick, this is something of an unwelcome turn of events that seems imperfect in the world of happy endings.
Yet, ultimately, that's what makes Funny People a different kind of risky comedy.  The story is on the tiresome side, but as a dramedy, it works. Funny People is about just that. Its hilarity is human and occasionally painful, but it succeeds in capturing the trial and error involved with actually struggling to be a 'funny person'.  The laughs don't come for free, it's a process, and there's something very real about the script, even as it's hitting you with joke after joke about masturbation and male genitalia. Each actor turns in a solid and believable performance, no matter how small the role. Every cameo (and there are dozens) is a success, the laughs rarely miss, and Sandler has never been better in a comedic role. So while the run time is daunting, think of it as getting more for your money.

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