My thoughts on Judd Apatow's third film are coming later than I had originally anticipated. The reason for this is not because I'm lazy or feel that the film is unworthy of commentary. It's just that I've had to spend a good week trying to understand exactly what I think of Apatow's latest.
"Funny People" is not a movie with a funny premise. It's about highly-successful comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler) who, in the film's opening moments, is diagnosed with a rare, probably-fatal blood disorder. After bombing at a nightclub one night, George meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an up-and-coming comic who toils by day at a deli and at night shares an apartment with two upstart comics (Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill) for whom success seems to come easy. Simmons asks Ira to be his assistant, writing jokes for him and tending to his needs in what could be the last days of his life.
The film's"Funny People" are not always likable people. Simmons is a man who's been catered to for so long that he doesn't understand that life doesn't revolve around him. Although his dire prognosis shakes him, he pursues life as a man who has gained the whole world and already lost his soul. He makes perfunctory attempts at reconciling with his family and gives pat apologies to his sister, but never tries to make things right or understand why giving his nephew DVDs of his movie is not really equal to time spent with the family. Haunted by the love that got away (Leslie Mann), he uses his sickness to try and reconnect with her, even though she's married and has two kids.
Ira, meanwhile, is on the road to becoming just like George. He understands the cut-throat world of comedy. It doesn't bother him to keep George's offer to write comedy hidden from his roommates. It bothers him even less to appropriate their jokes. Ira wants to succeed at all costs and why shouldn't he? Everyone else is. Schwartzman's character, the star of the hilariously awful faux sitcom "Yo Teach" not only leaves his $25,000 checks out, but also threatens to sleep with Ira's crush if he doesn't' close the deal in 10 days. Hill's character is a bit nicer but seems to succeed without trying; he lucks into opening for Simmons and gains a cult following on Youtube for editing video of himself playing with cats.
This is far removed from the pothead slackers and frat boys that populated "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." These are the comedians those guys would have idolized, never knowing how dark and sad their lives actually were. Apatow, drawing on his experience in the bitter world of comedy, paints a picture of what funny people are like when they're not being funny. And the result is a group of people who were pushed into the business to cope with shortcomings or emotional turmoil---is it any surprise they're screwed up?
Not that the film is a dire affair. It is, after all, a comedy. The banter between Ira and his roommates is right up there with the riffing in Apatow's previous films. There's a great conversation Schwartzman's character has about his grandfather's death; Hill's punchline is one of the funniest scenes in the movie.
For once in a movie, performance comedy is actually funny. Very few movies are made about stand up comedy and with good reason--the truth is that it's usually funnier to go out and see a professional comic with his own voice than to watch an actor try and interpret dialogue that a screenwriter thought was funny. Apatow put his actors up on stage in actual nightclubs to prepare for their roles and I like the way each actor's stage persona is different and fits each actor uniquely. I also appreciated the digs at Rogen's recent weight loss, acknowledging why audiences are taken aback when portly comedians get fit. ("No one wants to hear Lance Armstrong tell jokes").
But the film's funniest moments are on stage or involving actual comedians (a scene at a nightclub involving several famous cameos is fantastic, especially when it ends with Eminem picking a fight with Ray Romano). When the characters are off-stage, Apatow seems to be eager to put the comedy aside in favor of exploring these characters and the choices they make, even when his flawed creations make wrong choices. It's rare to see a filmmaker let his characters breathe and make decisions that the cast and crew consciously know are going to upset the audience, and I think that's going to be what surprises and ultimately disappoints several people.
Not that we should be surprised to find that Apatow has more on his mind than sexual and scatological humor (although it's prevalent here). For all its raunch, "40-Year-Old Virgin" still stands as the rare R-rated film to take a somewhat old-fashioned stance, poking fun at our culture's sexual obsession and, in the end, championing its characters ultimate choice to wait until marriage to have sex. "Knocked Up" was about a one-night stand between a successful woman and a pothead; while I don't take the position that many do that the film is a pro-life message, I do think it makes a strong point about the need to put away childish things, grow up and take responsibility. Apatow's films, and many of his productions, have always been founded on emotional honest and characters who are relatable and flawed; it's why they're so funny.
But Apatow seems more intent on showcasing his character's flaws and weaknesses here than he did in the past and he does so with more brutality than before, not allowing his characters the option of escaping with a funny joke or gag. His two main characters are both flawed individuals forced to come to a point of realization. Ira's given a chance to see that he has what it takes to be like George Simmons--he starts getting better gigs and actually begins to get paid. But he also sees the way George has squandered his life and mistreated those around him, a pattern Ira is already beginning to show in his own life. During his time with George, we watch Ira develop not only as a comedian but as a man, and Ira is ultimately the film's moral compass. There's a point near the end where Ira has to decide whether to act on his conscience, even though it could cost him his job and a friendship. But is it friendship if you're being used? And is it friendship to withhold painful truths that could make the other person improve?
Rogen has impressed me as a comedian since he stole every one of his scenes in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." While I wasn't the biggest fan of this year's "Observe and Report," it was the first time I noticed that Rogen has more to offer than just being the fat slacker. Losing his weight seems to have pushed Rogen to prove himself and taken away a crutch and I was impressed at the dark psychological depths he took his character to in that film.
His character in "Funny People" is far more normal and Rogen continues to impress me. He moves from being the slacker to being the witty Everyman, with a self-deprecating wit and a sweet side that makes him instantly likable. "Funny People" has been compared to a James L. Brooks movie by several critics and, if that's the case, Rogen is Apatow's Albert Brooks. Here Rogen is funny but also conflicted, confused and, in the final stretches, convicted. I have a feeling people will overlook the work Rogen does here but he's really the film's beating heart and I could definitely see him in roles are reminiscent of Brooks, Dan Aykroyd or pre-"Philadelphia" Tom Hanks.
But Ira's dilemmas are nothing compared to the situation George finds himself in. Sandler almost parodies himself in this film--a one-time stand-up comic who has sold out to make a string of formulaic mainstream hits. George is not surrounded by friends, but by yes-men and fans. He's never had a friend to tell him to wise up or advise him when he's screwing up. He's never had to think much about other people because, to the people around him, he's the center of the universe. It's no surprise that when he learns he's dying that he does things that brought him success before, no matter if it hurts other people.
For as many awful movies as Sandler appears in, I have to admit that he's one of those actors I always root for, simply because he's so likable (yes, that was me who gave a positive review to "You Don't Mess with the Zohan"). To be honest, much of my disdain for films like "Little Nicky," "Big Daddy" or "The Waterboy" comes not because they're horrible movies--although some are--but rather because I know Sandler's better than this. His comedy cds were models of crass hilarity. And when under the tutelage of a capable director, Sandler has proven himself to be one heck of an actor--I'm still upset more people didn't champion his work in "Reign Over Me" and he absolutely should have been recognized by Oscar for his work in the brilliant "Punch Drunk Love."
Those roles were often a bit dark and quirky, but saved by Sandler's inherent likability. Here, he seems to be playing a more normal character, but gone is the warmth and humor of the previous characters--Simmons may be funny and have a popular stage persona, but he's been isolated for so long that he seems to have lost any sense of altruism or warmth. Everything about him is an for show; surrounded by yes men all his life, he sees it as an attack when someone tries to tell him he's screwing up...they're wrong and they can't be trusted. He may be quick with a joke, but he's got nothing inside. And when he learns he's dying, he finally begins to discover that truth and tries to fix his messed-up life; but if you've been taught that the wrong things will bring you happiness and self is the end of all joy, how right are you actually going to make things?
It's brave work from Sandler, a comedian who has always been the very definition of likability. To strip away the very essence of the things that make him popular and still have a character who commands the screen takes a remarkable skill. Sandler is also perfectly cast as the veteran comedian surrounded by costars who are the up-and-comers in the genre; it makes the entire atmosphere that much more believable. I also liked how Apatow (Sandler's former roommate) incorporates old footage of the comedian to show his legacy; and the clips from Simmons' films are hilarious in their badness. I could easily see a Sandler/Robin Williams or Tim Allen film like "Merman" being made; I shudder at the thought.
And so yes, for 90 minutes I was taken a bit aback by the film's more dramatic tone but admit that there's some great stuff going on there.
The problem is that "Funny People" is not an hour and a half. It's 2 1/2 hours.
Apatow decides to send George and Ira on a road trip in the film's final hour, part of George's plan to woo back his lost love. And it's not that there's anything wrong with this--although the characters make decisions that make me cringe, that's kind of the point--except that it gets repetitive. Yes, I like Leslie Mann and she does some funny and heartfelt work here. And Eric Bana, as her Australian husband, is surprisingly funny. But that last hour meanders and winds, ultimately turning into an excuse to showcase Mann (Apatow's wife) and the director's children in several repetitive scenes. By the time the film gets to the third shot of Ira playing with the kids, I was ready to scream.
I can understand Apatow wanting to keep this material in, and I doubt that it has anything to do with making his family a major part of the movie. The stuff isn't pointless--it's letting the characters breathe and develop before making their final decisions. But the writer-director, whose previous films have also shown a tendency towards overlength, should have been aware that he could have easily condensed and cut about 30 minutes from this material. It's one thing to be "a little long" but another thing for a film just to stop cold for an entire half hour. And while the problems I had before were with my expectations vs. Apatow's delivery, the problem I have here is with good film making vs. bad film making. It keeps the movie from being the masterpiece I believe Apatow thought he was making.
Still, there's plenty to like in "Funny People." Sandler and Rogen are fantastic and I'm always clamoring for more Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill. Any scene involving comedians or stand up comedy is pure gold and the emotional undercurrent of the film is surprisingly strong and resonant. But that extra half hour just grinds things to a halt--I doubt we'll see a DVD Director's cut that advertises "30 Fewer Minutes!" but that would be the one I'd want to see.
"Funny People" is a very good movie kept from greatness by a director struggling to make a transition from flat-out humor to drama. I hope it's a growing pain for Apatow because I think that, more than anything, it hints at what he's capable at in the future.