Judd Apatow is the comedy legend of our day. It seems that just about everything he touches turns to gold. After a few years of small producing and writing efforts, Apatow returns with his first directorial effort in two years with “Funny People.” At first, it might not seem like comic gold. But under its scratched surface, lies a diamond in the rough.
“Funny People” is probably Apatow’s most personal project to date. He incorporates real life experiences into every movie he does, but never so much as in “Funny People.” In fact, “Funny People” starts off with real footage of Apatow and Adam Sandler making prank calls when they were just starting off in the comedy business.
But forget reality, lets head off to movieland. “Funny People” is a dramedy about George Simmons (Adam Sandler). Simmons is based partly off the life and career of Sandler; he’s a comic legend who’s become one of the biggest movie stars in the world. He may have a big, beautiful home, but like Charles Foster Kane, that home is completely empty.
Now, Simmons has discovered that he has come down with a terminal disease. In his near-death experience, Simmons decides to seize the moment and reevaluate his life. First, he decides to return to his standup career. Then, he hires struggling young comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to be his writer and something of an assistant. Next, he decides to win back an old flame (Leslie Mann) who is currently married to an Australian man (Eric Bana).
“Funny People” isn’t just a personal project for Apatow–it’s just as personal for Sandler. And because of that, he gives the best performance he’s given since “Punch Drunk Love.” However, “Funny People” isn’t as much of a flat-out drama as “Punch Drunk Love” was. Maybe it’s not seriousness that makes Sandler’s performance so good, perhaps it’s maturity. In “Funny People,” he’s just as funny as in classics “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore.” However, here, there is a degree of self-awareness. The style of humor of George Simmons is something like the style of humor that made Sandler famous in the 90s. Those bothered by Sandler’s sense of humor won’t be bothered here.
A performance less acknowledged by critics is Rogen’s. He projects a high level of awkwardness, especially when Ira is struggling through stand up routines. It’s funny, but we’re not laughing at him; in a way, we’re cheering for him. Rogen also brings probably the most emotion he’s ever brought to a role when expressing his feelings towards George in their very rocky friendship.
The film contains a fine ensemble of comedians both old and very new. Apatow regular Jonah Hill is a scene stealer in his portrayal of a comedian who realizes the key to comic gold is YouTube videos of cats. Meanwhile, newcomers like Aubrey Plaza (“Parks & Recreation”) pull their own weight as well. Most surprisingly is how hilarious Eric Bana is. Then again, I shouldn’t be too surprised. Before becoming a serious actor, Bana was a standup comic Down Under, and even had his own comedy show.
Along with being a dramedy, “Funny People” is also a self-reflexive show business satire. It contains fictional movies and TV shows within a fictional movie. There are actors playing actors, and actors playing themselves. Many are celebrities you would never expect to be funny, yet it turns out a certain rapper who I won’t name happens to have a very good sense of humor about himself. Meanwhile, the movie within a movie “Re Do” and the show within a movie “Yo Teach!” show the somewhat dismal state of mainstream comedy.
Although all of these aspects of the movie–the actors, the satire, the drama–are all great, they all serve as part of the film’s bigger problems. The first real flaw with the film is that it’s too long. “Funny People” is around 145 minutes long, and you can feel every minute of it. Some scenes drag on too long. The film also tries to tackle way too much. It’s central focus should be the relationship between George and Ira, and George’s quest to win back Laura’s affection. However, the film also goes off trying to tackle Ira’s girl troubles, as well as the careers of a few other rising comics.
The only problem is, I don’t think I would want to remove a single scene from the movie because every scene is so good, every character is so fascinating, and every joke is so funny. The editors must have had a more difficult time than they could ever have imagined with this film.
But there is also another reason it would be impossible to cut a single scene out. The film isn’t meant to focus solely on George and Ira. “Funny People” is an ensemble film, and as an ensemble film, it must cover a wide amount of people rather than a small amount. Apatow decided with “Funny People” to make both a personal relationship film and a collage of the lives of assorted comedians.
So now I sit here, wondering whether to tell you to see or not to see this movie. Instead, I’m going to do what a good critic does best: give you my opinion, and then let you decide for yourself whether or not you should see it. This is a movie made for people who don’t just like comedy, but are diehard fans of it. Even if you’re not, you’ll still laugh at the brilliant stand up routines and be wowed at the human connections that Apatow’s career has become defined by. To put it in short, this is the first comedy epic I’ve ever seen.
On the Apatow Scale: 1. The 40 Year Old Virgin 2. Knocked Up 3. Funny People