[26 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It was the story that Judd Apatow always wanted to tell. It was the growing pains of a youth spent in pursuit of comedic glory, and a reality bitterly dejected by the lack of success in same. It was a chance to reunite with old buddy and roommate Adam Sandler, to shoot the shit (so to speak) about those salad days of failed auditions, industry indifference, and never-ending hope. Now, with most of the men both behind and in front of the scenes grasping at superstar status, it seemed time to bring Funny People out of the mothballs. Of course, as the new Blu-ray disc presentation more than illustrates, a couple of questions arise. Was this really a tale of stand up comedians and the sad, often sullen life they lead? Or was this just a nepotistic mess that saw Apatow invite in everyone, including his own kitchen sink crowd, to spend some of Universal’s misguided money?
From the looks of it, it was the latter. Sandler plays George Simmons, a jaundiced Jim Carrey type who has made himself disgustingly rich in several surreal high concept comedies. When he learns he is dying from a rare form of leukemia, he decides to mend old wounds and get back to his first love - the stand-up stage - before he passes on. One night, he runs into struggling comics Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) and Leo Koenig (Jonah Hill). While their material is mediocre, it’s better than his self-loathing swill. So he decides to hire them. Only Ira ends up coming along for the ride, a journey that will take George back through his past successes and failures, as well as an attempted reconciliation with the “one that got away”, a former actress girlfriend named Laura (Leslie Mann). Unfortunately, she’s married with children, her good-natured Australian husband Clarke (Eric Bana) a major obstacle to them getting back together.
Somewhere between admirable ambition and outright failure lies Funny People. What should have been a witty, insightful, and often scathing expose about life in service of the ever-elusive laugh turns into a flailing family affair with the previously Teflon Apatow getting stuck with lots of kindred egg on his face. As perfect a comedy as Knocked Up is, Funny People can’t compete. As unusual The 40 Year Old Virgin is in idea and execution, this film is rote and uninspired. We except more from this man, from the individuals he hung around with and nurtured for the last three decades. Sandler is solid as the jerk in retrospect, an A-list a-hole with a heart hardened by the mandates of accomplishment. He carries much of the movie’s emotional weight, even when old bud Judd can’t give him the proper dialogue to deliver the sentiment.
Rogen is also good as the fame obsessed schlep who wants desperately to join his roommates in quasi-LA fortune. His entire shtick - sellout for the sake of something greater - resonates with a post-millennial demo eager to do the same for their allotted 15 minutes. But because he’s lost some of his sad sack sympathy (as Jonah Hill says, it comes with ditching the weight), we view his drive for professional popularity as something new and novel. As his cohorts, Hill and Jason Schwartzman make a nice contrast re: young Hollywood. One is gifted but clearly stunted by his looks. The other trades on his lack of talent for a perfect “sitcom” aura. Together, they flaunt what Ira is not - accessible or artistic. Instead, Apatow makes it clear that this young wannabe will glom onto George for as long as it take for some celebrity to rub off - or until the dying comedian takes things too far.
It’s the latter that happens in fact, for both Funny People and its cast. Instead of staying in the realm of stand-up, a place where he can mine magnificent turns from the likes of Aziz Ansari (as the clueless cult in the making - RANDY! ) and newcomer Aubrey Plaza (as the dour, delightful Daisy), he runs right to Mann her/his own offspring - Maude and Iris Apatow - to turn the movie into a mired, manipulative mess. No matter how hilarious it is seeing Eric Bana in full blown Downunder dickhead mode, this last act shift in tone and treatment seems decidedly dense. We never understood George’s obsession with Laura, so there forced feel good high school puppy love finale falls absolutely flat. So does Ira’s intervention, Bana’s deflated dork, and everything else about Funny People‘s self-destructive denouement.
Of course, to listen to the commentary track featuring the director and his posse, this was always his intention. For Apatow, Funny People is about how fame swallows you up, drains you of your soul, and seals your fate as a lonely, unlikeable jerk. He sees Sandler (who is quite serious at times during the discussion) as a representative of the cold, callous TMZ types he has to deal with all the time. For him, the movie isn’t about comedy so much as it is about how the genre forces you to lose yourself, to cater to a public that always wants you to be “on”. The fact that this tale takes off toward his own home base at the end is never really rationalized. It’s just part and parcel of the way he feels like telling his side of things. While the rest of the Blu-ray basks in what could have been (more vintage footage of Sandler and Rogen, more terrific stand-up, amazing material from Simmons silly-athon movies), we are stuck with what Apatow wanted to say - for good and for bad.
Perhaps years from now, when his oeuvre isn’t so limited and pinched by the near perfection of Virgin and Knocked Up, Funny People can be appreciated as a noble failure. Maybe with a few more movies under his belt, with the patina of phenomenon stripped from his status and reliability regained by some good old cinematic consistency, we can meet him halfway here. As it stands, Funny People feels indulgent when it should be celebratory. It lacks focus when what it really needs is a razor sharp center. No matter how good or gratuitous the casting, no matter what he intended or what the bevy of bonus features argue, this is not a movie that works. It’s like an old car, in desperate need of repair but more comfortable than an old woolen blanket. As its sputters and pops, speeds along and then stalls, you keep wondering why you bother with it. Thanks to a wealth of laughs, and some lessons to learn, Funny People attempts to make up for its misfires. In some ways, it can’t.