The Tears of a Clown: Funny People's $23 million

Funny People

Director: Judd Apatow
Cast: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, RZA
Rated: R
Studio: Universal Studios
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-07-31 (General release)
UK date: 2009-08-28 (General release)

There was little doubt about the premise. Even though insider stories rarely connect beyond a niche movie audience, the man behind this particular tale had a clear commercial track record going in. His 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up were hits, and his work as a producer (Talladega Nights, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express) provided numerous examples of box office branding. So letting Judd Apatow center his third directorial effort around stand-up comedy, death, and a kind of cynical, stunted redemption seemed like a decent enough idea. He even had Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, and his regular company of comic foils on hand to walk viewers through this "difficult, dark" experience.

So what happened? How did a sure shot like Funny People end up underperforming over the 31 July weekend? Granted, $23 million is nothing to sneeze at. There's a few Summer of 2009 titles that would have loved to do that number. But when you are dealing with expectations, hype, previous ticket returns, star power, and perceived competition, Sandler's serio-comedic evisceration of life in the limelight should have been bigger. Some blame the rating (hard "R" comedies rarely do well). Others looked to the running time (at nearly 150 minutes, theaters lost a valuable additional showing each day). But the truth is that Funny People "failed" - for lack of a better term - because it did the one thing the fanbase didn't expect: it mixed the sappy with the scatological.

As previously mentioned, Pineapple Express was an Apatow-guided experiment, its story of two stoners suddenly pursued by hitmen and corrupt cops a weirdo combination of pot smoke farce and full blown action film. Critics complained that, by the time characters Dale Denton and Saul Silver were banging on all bong cylinders, the screenplay strayed insanely over into fire fights and fisticuffs. Not only was the change in tone tenuous, but so was the notion that two baked buffoons could actually wield a little bad ass bravado (especially in the guise of Seth Rogen and James Franco) and end up saving the day. Yet thanks to some nimble direction from indie icon David Gordon Green and remarkable performances from the leads, the public bought it.

Funny People suffers from the same third act schizophrenia. For about an hour and forty-five minutes of its overlong running time, Sandler's George Simmons plays an entertainment Ebenezer Scrooge to Rogen's genial, if equally jaded Bob Cratchit. When he discovers he is dying from a rare form of leukemia, the fictional mega-movie star, responsible for the kind of cheap commercial drivel that drove the big screen comedy for nearly two decades, decides to take unpolished novice Ira Wright under his wing. Through pain and performances, insights and aggravation, Sandler and Rogen form an uneasy bond, the kind of friendship built more on shared experience and perception rather than deep interpersonal connections.

During this expositional overview of non-erotic Jewish male bonding, Apatow delivers one of the most devastating, and hilarious looks at fame ever. In the supporting characters of Ira's roommates, we have a superficial sitcom star (Jason Schwartzman) buying into his own myth and a roly-poly comic (Jonah Hill) who is earning all the accolades that our hero desperately wants. Along the fringes are other examples of character disparity. Aziz Ansari plays a goofball performer named Randy who’s like a combination of Andy Kaufman and a service tech at Best Buy, while Aubrey Plaza is a comedian/love interest for Ira so off-kilter and unusual that she barely seems to be standing upright. With Sandler "slumming" in this world, and some amazingly clever cameos (Ray Romano, Eminem), Funny People more than lives up to its title…

…that is, until Laura comes along. Played by Apatow's real life wife Leslie Mann, she's Simmons' dream girl, the one that mattered, the one that got away. Of course, how we learn of her importance is as crucial to Funny People's flailing effectiveness overall as any other aspect of the film. You see, Apatow wants to have it both ways. He wants to make Simmons the nastiest of nonplused celebs, the kind of guy who would bail on a charity to bang a couple of chicks. He wants to make this slipping superstar into something more dimensional, more vulnerable, more human - like Jerry Lewis as Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy. While we have a couple of great scenes where Simmons confronts his distant family, Apatow believes romantic love is the kind of creative cure-all that audiences will buy. So he takes his sly show business satire, loads up into an SUV, and drives the movie straight to shit.

Now, before we tear down the last third of the film, let's deal with a side issue. For the last few months, Apatow and his new permanent home Universal (even with this weekend's numbers, the filmmaker just inked a new three-picture deal) have been putting out one of those formerly fresh, currently cliché "viral" ad campaigns. There are websites devoted to George Simmons and his work, Internet homes for Randy and Yo Teach (Schwartzman's hilarious hack TV show). A couple of weeks ago, both Comedy Central and HBO began running specials showing the various stand-up performances essayed by the cast for inclusion in the movie. While meant to raise awareness, these unlikely publicity vehicles argued for something Funny People didn't expect - that is, that some incredibly witty and undeniably humorous material never made it onto the big screen.

When taken in conjunction with what happens once Simmons and his sidekick hit Laura's San Francisco home, this proves to be Funny People's artistic undoing. Any creative type will tell you - you NEVER leave your best material for an afterthought, or in this case, a DVD bonus feature. Especially not when you have an incredibly weak, intermittently effective conclusion causing concern. Indeed, Funny People should have milked the concert and club appearances attended by Sandler, Hill, Rogen, Ansari and Plaza instead of letting our lead play house with a character that's part starf*cker, part shrew. Laura is not an appealing presence. She comes across as flighty and incomplete. During her initial scenes with Simmons, there is a wistfulness to her affection, a nostalgic need to reconnect and then put to bed (figuratively) their troubled, tenuous past together.

Instead of leaving it there, however, Apatow literally revisits the relationship and throws them in the sack together. Thus begins a sporadic exercise in over the top humor histrionics (Eric Bana, as Mann's husband, is perhaps the loudest Aussie on the entire planet) and remakes of material that worked 100% better in Knocked Up. Since we never really know what Simmons thinks - he turns incredibly cold and callous once he's "had" his former flame - and find Ira's reactions both understandable and irritating, we grow confused. And the last thing you need in a comedy is a sense of unease. It doesn't offer many laughs, and if continued to excess (which Funny People definitely does), it threatens all that comes before.

Indeed, that's probably the biggest reason for this film's less than electrifying returns. One imagines if you stopped any screening at say 105 minutes and asked what the audience thought, you'd get nothing but praise. Maybe a complaint about the plethora of dick jokes on display, but some rather consistent kudos overall. Add the extra 40 minutes, however, and the response is guaranteed to be a little more "diverse". Some critics have cited this material as some of the movie's best. Others have seen Laura and her lame, last act schmaltz as the reason that some comic filmmakers require a firmer editorial hand from the studios. When you consider what the movie could have been (Laura out - more stand-up and side material in) and you recognize that Simmons' arc didn't need the failed love story finale, you see where Funny People could have landed - and perhaps why it underperformed.

Of course, it's easy to play backseat driver to someone who actually sits behind the camera and makes his or her own artistic statements, and Apatow clearly believes that the Laura material humanizes and undercuts Simmons unhealthy bluster. But where does this narrative diversion actually lead us, in the end? Does our hero have a personal epiphany, or does he simply remember that he prefers being single and excessively wealthy. Had Laura really mattered, the movie would have ended on said subplot. Instead, Funny People realizes where it should have gone all along - back to George and Ira. Stay with their story, the former's failing health, the other stand-up struggles, and you've got an excellent backstage burlesque. And everything about said section works wonderfully. But by moving over into the maudlin, Funny People lost its way. While hilarious, it ends up feeling half-baked.

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