Review: Funny People, 2009, dir. Judd Apatow

To say that Funny People represents Judd Apatow’s first career stumble would be a lie. He’s been writing and producing since the mid-90’s, and stuffed in between the rousing success of his directorial debut and follow-up, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin and Knocked Up, respectively, as well as his numerous producing and writing credits (Forgetting Sarah Marshal and Pineapple Express come to mind as recent examples), he’s had his name associated to a reasonable share of middle-road or trite material. It’s a given at this point that not everything he has his fingers in is gold. Apologizing aside, his third time directing feature length effort has yielded a picture that bears all of the requisite depth and humor of his first two efforts but still ends up being frustrating and unfocused. Funny People is by no means a bad movie– and even if it was I suspect that a bad movie by Apatow would still be better than a bad movie by almost any of his peers– but it’s flawed and incomplete in the sense that it is actually two different movies haphazardly stitched together.

The first movie follows Adam Sandler’s grouchy, near-misanthropic comedian George Simmons during a crucial time in his life. Simmons, we find out, has leukimia. Worse, it’s advanced to the point where traditional treatments are no longer effective, leaving experimental courses of recovery (which have a low rate of success) as his only option. Seeing his death as inevitable, Simmons goes on a soul-searching mission and heads back to his comedy roots of stand-up, a path that eventually leads him to Seth Rogen’s struggling, aspiring comedian, Ira. Simmons takes a liking to the up-and-comer, and hires Ira to write jokes for him. The first chunk of Funny People plays out as a deconstruction of the comedian amidst George’s struggle to come to terms with his own mortality; we learn, in bits and pieces, what impels people like Simmons and Ira to get up on a stage and spin punchlines in the first place. The examination doesn’t fully pierce through the armor that these characters wear but the layers that do peel away are revealing in their own right.

This is undeniably Sandler’s movie. The supporting cast is wonderful through and through (Seth Rogen, of course, delights, and Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman kill as Ira’s roommates), but ultimately we’ll always come back to Sandler’s performance. I suppose the phrase “career-best” means little in reference to a man whose actings credits include dreck like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Click, but the foul-mouthed, low-brow comedian’s performance goes above being simply the best he’s ever done. For modern interpretations of “the comedian” done right, look no further than Sandler’s portrayal of Simmons as a rounded, fully-fledged character, rather than a grotesque depiction of the character as a comic. Sandler wears the character’s frustrations on his sleeve while letting his loneliness bubble underneath a nonchalant, uncaring front; Simmons certainly is funny, but he’s also someone who has grown accustomed to hiding behind the image he’s built for himself over the course of his career. In fact, his career trajectory bears, likely not by accident, striking similarities to Sandler’s, which colors his performance in an especially revealing light. Above all, we want Simmons to succeed, even at his most stubborn and abusive; through all of his immense flaws Sandler manages to make his mirror easy to root for. If nothing else, the performance feels totally exposed and honest.

Funny People‘s first half ambles in a direction that, in another movie, would end with Simmons’ death and his redemption as a person, but as I said, the film stitches together two different narratives in such a way that both collide at about the halfway mark: Suddenly, Simmons learns from his doctor that he has miraculously beaten the disease. Coming off of the protagonist’s brush with death, the film slams the brakes and changes gears drastically as he decides to court his ex-fiancée, Laura (Leslie Mann), who is now married to traveling businessman Clarke (Eric Bana). The film moves away from themes and ideas established initially in favor of the kind of romantic comedy that Apatow handles so adroitly, and while the new direction the film takes isn’t bad per se, the jarring nature of the tonal change mars the film as both halves feel incredibly incongruous. While neither of Funny People‘s respective narratives actually stand out as poor in quality, either half would have been better served as the whole of the film. Apatow’s mash-up of these two separate storylines yields an unfocused, unwieldy, and most of all unpolished movie; the first half feels unresolved, and the second reaches resolution but boasts minimal build-up to its denoument.

Maybe the real reason the split narrative hurts Funny People so much has to do with the fact that it represents a clear break from the meta-reality in which the first half of the film clearly bases itself. Most of the comedians featured in Funny People, whether they’re main or supporting characters or whether they simply appear in a cameo, have firm roots in stand-up. Seeing them “perform” adds an extra layer and additional heft to Ira’s pursuit of his passion and George’s return to his beginnings as a comedian. That self-reflexive aspect disappears when George attempts to rekindle the spark he once had with Laura, and only solidifies the sense that we’re watching two completely different films.

So the question is, is the film worth watching? I offer a cautious “yes” in answer; Funny People has laughs to spare and a fantastic supporting cast (though Eric Bana, a man who started his career out in stand-up comedy, is given woefully little to do with his one-note character). In fact, the side characters often threaten to steal the show from the film’s principles, particularly Aziz Ansari performing his own stand-up material doing a Dane Cook impression as comedian Randy Springs. There’s no mistake that Funny People, in terms of content, represents the type of movie we’ve come to expect from Apatow, but here he ultimately loses his focus. While the lapse in attention doesn’t prove disastrous, glimpses of the movie that he could have made prevent the experience from being as satisfying as it should have been.

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