Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow are Funny People
After devoting his first two films as director, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, to getting laid and having kids, respectively, Judd Apatow brings the circle of life to a close with Funny People, which stars Adam Sandler as George Simmons, a popular, Sandler-esque movie star diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal form of leukemia. When actors and directors start thinking outside of themselves and start worrying about how to get more respect or be taken capital-S seriously, it's almost always a recipe for disaster. Mercifully, Funny People is probably the least bathetic, self-pitying movie about death and dying to come out of Hollywood since Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life. When he receives his diagnosis, George doesn't sit around feeling sorry for himself, or set out on some inspirational quest to do everything he ever wanted to do before he dies. Instead, he resolves to fight this thing the best he can and to get on with the business of living.
That's not to say that George doesn't go through his share of denial, anger, bargaining and depression en route to accepting his condition. There's a great, discomfiting scene early on in which he lapses into a dark, stream-of-consciousness riff during a stand-up set at the famous Comedy & Magic Club in Long Beach, leaving the audience uncertain about whether they should laugh. After George implodes, a 20-something actor and comic named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) takes the stage and makes light of George's gloom, winning laughs for doing so. Later, when the comics meet up in the parking lot, George tells Ira he would have done the same thing when he was his age and eventually asks him to come write jokes for him.
So the world of the dying comedy legend intersects with that of the hungry up-and-comers—not just Ira, but his roommates, Leo (Jonah Hill), another aspiring actor-writer, and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), a hilariously pompous pretty-boy actor. Apatow clearly knows a lot about the competitiveness and petty rivalries of showbiz people desperate to get their feet in the door, and the Hollywood scenes in Funny People remind you how soft and self-congratulatory the ones are in most other movies. Ira realizes that George is his big break, and Apatow shows us his willingness to exploit his close proximity to a famous person—dying or not—for all it's worth.
There's so much that's so disarmingly good and sharp about Funny People that you wish the whole movie weren't so much of a shambles. I've seen Apatow's film twice, and both times, exactly halfway into its two-and-a-half-hour running time, I have felt the cabin shudder and noticed tiny fissures forming in the fuselage. That's about the point in the movie when George goes in for a checkup and learns that the experimental drugs he has been taking seem to be working, and that he may no longer be dying after all. The rest of Funny People is about George's dawning realization that he doesn't much like the life he had before, socializing with celebrity pseudo-friends and perambulating his giant, Xanadu-like mansion, surrounded by mountains of useless swag. So he decides to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, Laura (Leslie Mann), whom he cheated on 12 years ago and who now has a new life with a businessman husband (Eric Bana) and two young daughters.
It's hard enough for a movie to withstand the introduction of a whole set of major characters past the point when most movies are wrapping things up, and it's even harder when those characters feel so incongruous to everything that has come before. On the one hand, Laura and her brood should seem incongruous to George and his solitary life, but the feeling is one of a different, unintentional mismatch. When George and Laura have their first big scene together, it doesn't feel like these two people have a whole shared history together. Apatow's obvious model here is Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News director James L. Brooks, who gets a thanks in the end credits and whose last two films, As Good As It Gets and Spanglish, were as phony through and through as Funny People is in its lesser moments. But where Apatow falls short of Brooks is in his desire to redeem all his characters, to forgive even the worst behavior, and to send everyone home happy. A movie that strives to convey the depth of feeling and the range of emotion that Funny People so clearly does badly needs at least one moment of cruelty. Apatow has plenty of opportunities, but the closest he comes—a scene in which George callously checks his cell phone while Laura is held tearfully rapt by a family home video—makes only a softball impact. For a movie with countless dick jokes, you wish that Apatow's own cojones were a wee bit bigger.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.