Saturday, August 1, 2009

Funny People (***)

Written and Directed by Judd Apatow


There's a rather interesting dynamic within Funny People, Judd Apatow's latest comedy. The film delivers on its promise, and it is choc-filled with many, many funny people whether they're playing themselves or not. But the film's themes, by themselves, are not very funny. This has been said to have been Apatow's stab at serious film, and surely this movie does take itself more seriously than say Superbad or Knocked Up, but the usual shtick of dick and fart jokes prone to most Apatow films are still floating around everywhere. The mix is quite an eye-fill, if not uneven.

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a comedian and a movie star. He's had many hit films including "Merman!" which he plays a half-man, half-fish, and "Re-Do" where he gets himself turned into a baby. His films are mindless cotton candy, but they've made him ridiculously famous and wealthy, and he resides in a large Los Angeles mansion where numerous servants and workers keep the place in perfect shape. With everything he has, George is lonely, and his life is thrown upside-down when he finds out that he has a form of Leukemia which will likely kill him.

Depressed and helpless, Simmons goes to the Improv to do some surprise stand-up, but bombs. The comic which follows him is the young, nervous Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). Ira's set is not perfect, but George becomes taken with him, and offers Ira the chance to be his assistant. What does that job entail? Driving George around, going with him to the doctor, and following James Taylor at a gig when George rather not. Ira appreciates the job, and getting to spend time with a celebrity, but soon finds that George is nothing more than a petty, pathetic shell of himself who resents his fame while still relishing in it.

Among the adventures George undertakes with Ira is trying to win back his ex-fiance Laura (Leslie Mann). She, as George describes, was "the one who got away", and when he finds her trapped in a loveless marriage with a rollicking Australian named Clarke (Eric Bana), he sees his shot to take her away. Between watching videos of Laura's daughter in "Cats" and watching soccer games with Clarke, George becomes more and more intertwined within this family while George looks on, horrified.

It's shocking to think that this is only Judd Apatow's third film as director (after Knocked Up and 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin), seeing as he's had his hands on so many other projects over the last decade. Funny People is said to have been a very personal film for Apatow, and the movie does a wonderful job of giving the audience a peephole into the cut-throat world of stand-up comedy. This movie's biggest missed opportunity, I feel, is that we don't get more about the struggles of trying to hit big as a comedian. What the film does give us plenty of meandering subplots that come in and out of the story so sporadically that we feel like we're listening to a group of guys telling inside jokes that we're not in on.

It's not that any of these side-steps in the plot are not funny (if they weren't, the film would be ultimately unbearable), but with Apatow refusing to tighten the storyline, the themes become unclear, and the focus becomes blurred. There are Ira's roommates: a fat, funny writer played by Jonah Hill, and a pompous sit-com actor played by Jason Schwartzman. Both take full advantage of their opportunities, but why do they have so many? Also, there is a sequence of scenes involving a female comedian played by Aubrey Plaza who Ira is attracted to, but afraid to approach. The film's first half builds this conflict well, only to be settled in one rather meaningless scene in the film's last ten minutes.

All that said, the film's bloated 146 minutes always entertains. The film's jokes are clever and sharp, and it's more serious moments perform effectively, as well. All fans of Apatow will enjoy this movie very much, as it has just enough pop culture references to hold back the unbelievable overflow of tears some of the characters have. Whenever there is a sense of lagging, there is a surprising cameo (hey! Eminem!) or a scene so well-executed that you automatically get sucked back in (Sandler has a key, early scene in which his frustrations manifest themselves against a television which is some of the best work he's ever done).

Speaking of Sandler, his work in this film as a whole is rather interesting. I was of the generation which grew up with Billy Madison and The Wedding Singer, and always enjoyed him, even if in his sophomoric sensibilities. When he's had the chance to tackle more serious material, though, I begin to vary. His role in Reign Over Me always seemed rather silly and contrived. On the other hand, in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, he gives one of the greatest performances that I've ever seen. Because of that, I always put my faith in him, and in Funny People he takes a stab at himself and all the juvenile films he's made while still creating such a self-loathing personality. Despite it all, you still find yourself sewn to George's journey, and that's quite an accomplishment.

Both Mann and Rogen give wonderful supporting performances, but most of their stories get eaten up by the one about George (throughout the film, I constantly wondered if a 146-minute movie about Ira would've been more interesting). It's a long-winded testament to life and love and telling jokes, and it works because Apatow tells it with true sincerity and actually cares for these people. Do the wheels come off from time to time? Unfortunately, but car wrecks have rarely been this amusing.

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