Movie Review: Funny People (2009)

Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen in Funny People
Photo: Universal Pictures

Definitely do not go into Funny People expecting The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up because you aren’t going to find either of those films here and you are only going to cause yourself agitation. For many I believe that will be the key to whether you end up enjoying this film on some level or walking away in disgust. Early reviews have already drawn the line between those that consider Judd Apatow’s most down-to-earth film to date a bore and others that found a heart beat to his story-telling. I can’t say I am down-the-middle only because I was never once bored, despite the 146-minute running time, thanks Apatow’s top-notch story-telling ability.

The main problem I had was that I came away from the film with very little, and to say something is accomplished is a stretch. I would be willing to admit the characters grew throughout the film, but to what extent I can’t really say and their growth had very little affect on me while watching.

Funny People tells the story of comedian George Simmons played by Adam Sandler, a character that so closely mirrors Sandler it would be a shock if you told me he wasn’t inspired by Apatow’s one-time roommate. Simmons, like Sandler, has starred in his share of seeming box-office cash grabs such as Merman, which looks like an idiotic remake of Splash, and Redo which can only be compared to the Wayans brothers’ Little Man. Like Sandler he has gained a fanbase, but unlike Sandler he isn’t happily married. Beyond that, Simmons has some issues. He isn’t a nice person, he is lonely, has no close friends and has just learned he has a rare blood disease of which he is expected to have an 8% chance of surviving. It is at this point he reaches out to young comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) and takes him on as an assistant, confidant and ultimately the closest thing he will have to a friend.

Like I said, don’t expect Knocked Up. While there is a joke around almost every corner half the time it is used as deflection. Sure, there are some great moments of stand-up, but even those moments can carry additional baggage since the viewer knows the backstory in this documentary-esque/behind-the-scenes dramedy.

But it isn’t all serious and mopey, the comedy is definitely there; it’s just more realistic and true-to-life comedy. It’s the jokes you share between friends when someone does something stupid and you share a laugh, but even more, this film is about growing up and in George’s case, getting over oneself.

Funny People has two sides to the story. The first has just been described and follows along as George and Ira work the comedy circuit together and form an assumed bond. The second follows a more traditional pattern, loses the documentary/behind-the-scenes look at life and digs itself in for the long haul as George revisits old friends and selfishly sets out to rekindle the fire with an old flame played by Apatow’s wife, the lovely Leslie Mann.

The second half definitely bogs down the film as one setting seems to almost take up an hour of running time, accomplishing very little in terms of giving the audience any new information and loses a lot of the luster the first half earned. Eric Bana comes along as the film’s “wacky character” and while Apatow avoids traditional stereotypes with Bana’s character he almost seems to find his own form of cliche that never quite works. Bana is mildly entertaining but hardly believable and his scenes are so polar opposite from the rest of the film they never quite seem to fit.

As things begin to wind down you realize you don’t have anyone to cheer for. What is learned is of little consequence and almost feels insignificant. A fellow critic told me this was what they liked about the film’s ending as it mirrored real life and the way we get knocked down and pick ourselves up and learn from our mistakes. I wasn’t able to reach that conclusion because I never really connected to the characters enough to actually find that lesson all that inspiring.

Apatow’s ability to keep me curious as to where he was going to take things next was this film’s saving grace in my case. Even though I didn’t get a lot out of where the film ended up I must give credit to the director for keeping me interested. As a matter of fact, there was a moment where the film almost lost me entirely, but Apatow managed to regain my confidence ten minutes later as he avoided one of the worst cliched trappings you expect with a film of this sort. With this said, I feel repeat viewings of Funny People would have me siding more with the negative crowd than the positive as I can’t see this one holding up over time, but as a one-time showing I came away with enough to say I was satisfied.