Directed by Judd Apatow
Often after a director has had a successful couple of pictures, he gets struck by a seemingly undeniable urge to make a film about himself and his own life as ‘important dramatic material,’ a film that usually unbearably self-important. “Funny People” isn’t that film but its easy to get the idea during an opening credits sequence filled with Apatow and Sandler’s personal video footage of Sandler’s early comedy career.
Sandler stars as George Simmons, a world famous comic-cum-movie star very much in the mold of… well, of Adam Sandler. George has found out he has a rare form of Leukemia and not much chance of surviving. In a search for something, anything, to give his life meaning he returns to the stand-up comedy he’d given up with success, meeting struggling newcomer Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) and becoming immersed in his life.
In a lot of ways, the film is about Sandler, who shared an apartment with Apatow in his early career the way Ira does in “Funny People,” and people like George that Sandler and Apatow know. He’s the classic Hollywood stereotype of the man who has everything cars and mansions and money and an unending supply of girls but who really has nothing. And with death barreling down on him he’s starting to realize it.
And they certainly know people like Rogen’s Ira, comics and actors and whatnot who are sleeping on a friend’s couch and working as a waiter or at a grocery store until their big break comes. But “Funny People” is not really about Ira, though it takes the film a little while to decide that, which is a bit of a problem.
Considering how much of the film is about Apatow and Sandler’s life from their state of beginning to their current success you could be forgiven for thinking the film is extremely narcissistic. Even Apatow’s kids play significant roles in the film. To an extent it is, but it can’t quite help it, since narcissism is the main facet of George’s life. Everything in his life is about him. He can’t stand to be alone. His best friend is his employee who he has talk him to sleep each night. Even coming face to face with his own mortality can’t keep him from making everything about him. If anything it just gives him an excuse.
And it’s not clear, even late, that he’s ever going to change. Only that he might take the small step of realizing he needs to. Apatow flirts with a lot of classic clichés as George begins to worm his way into the life of the only woman he ever loved (Leslie Mann), but is skilled enough to keep the film from ever staying safe, focusing on how people would really feel in that situation and making certain they’re not allowed the easy, happy-ever-after way out.
In the intervening years since George and Laura (Mann) broke up due to his philandering she has gotten married to an Australian businessman (Eric Bana) a lot like George and started a family, a family George suddenly thinks he most wants and tries to worm his way back into.
But for all the skill with which Apatow handles the material, it’s hard not to feel that George is a little shallow, partly because he is, but partly because of the way he and Sandler approach George. It’s hard to get a feel for how he’s gotten to the point he’s gotten to, perhaps because to Apatow and Sandler, it is read as they are in many ways making a film about themselves. “Funny People” is really only interested in what is happening to George now and not much else about his life. There are glimpses of it, but that’s all.
Apatow is trying hard to build George as a character by inference, which is usually the best way to go about it but is also very hard and doesn’t quite hit the mark, mainly because it takes a while to make up its mind who its going to be about. Early on and for about the first hour of its running time, “Funny People” splits its time with Ira and his quest for success both professionally and personally as he painfully courts the young comedienne who lives across the street. The film is trying to make contrast between Ira’s life of authentic struggle and George’s life of achieved falseness. It doesn’t quite get there and eventually gives the whole thing up for lost and focuses on George. It doesn’t help that it uses Ira as the lens through which George is viewed, keeping him at a distance from the viewer much of the time.
The performances are generally fine throughout as the characters use their wit to keep the harshness of reality at bay yet approach life with a degree of reality. It takes a lot for them to break down in histrionics, especially George who is gaining a degree of maturity (or at least confidence in his assessment of life) with approaching middle-age. Sandler does it very well, but then he should be able to, considering he’s essentially playing himself from the numerous potshots at some of his poorer film choices. It also looks fantastic thanks to Spielberg’s cinematographer of choice, Janusz Kaminski, who manages a subtle blend of real world and Hollywood gloss that never looks short of amazing.
For all its qualities, “Funny People” never quite comes together. It can’t quite decide who it wants to be about, whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama and in trying to be all things at once it never quite hits its full potential. It’s a bit of a shift from his usual approach and might throw off some audiences expecting more overt comedy. It’s the kind of thing James L. Brooks would have made ten years ago. Still, there’s a lot to like about “Funny People” and if it never works completely, it works in a lot of small ways, and those are usually the most important ones because they’re the ones we always overlook. It’s no laugh riot and it’s no masterpiece, but “Funny People” probably deserves not to be overlooked.