Funny People is a step forward for writer/director Judd Apatow even as it’s the weakest of his three films. It’s his attempt at a Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters (with more dick jokes), while 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up were more lightweight Annie Hall.
Don’t be misled by the Woody Allen references. Judd Apatow is no Woody Allen. But his films tread the same ground… modern relationships, wall-to-wall jokes, a showbiz milieu (with Los Angeles in place of New York City). And Apatow is the reigning voice in comedic filmmaking today, as Allen was in his heyday, though Apatow’s reach extends beyond his own films to a slew of movies he’s written and/or produced.
Funny People is the first of those films to function primarily as a drama. It follows the relationship between George Simmons, a wealthy comedian who made his fortune on infantile concept movies, and Ira Wright, a wannabe stand-up who works at a deli and crashes in the apartment of his more successful friends. George, diagnosed with a likely fatal disease, reaches out to Ira first as a joke writer and later as a full-time assistant and the closest thing to a friend he’s had in years.
The highlights of the film are the unexpectedly wonderful performances by Adam Sandler as George and Seth Rogen as Ira. Sandler has stretched as an actor before, most notably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, but he’s never been as good as he is here. His George Simmons is a funnyman asshole who deals with his own mortality not by going soft — though he has his vulnerable moments — but by more or less accepting what a jerk he is. Rogen’s Ira Wright, by contrast, is a genuinely good person who mines for the decency he figures must exist somewhere in his boss.
They also tell a lot of dick jokes.
Rounding out the lead cast is Leslie Mann, who was superb in Knocked Up but here is saddled with the thankless role of George’s former flame, Laura. Now married to a bombastic Australian (Eric Bana) with two adorable girls (played by Apatow and Mann’s own children), she is all too willing to drop everything once she reenters Simmons’ life. Mann has some nice moments but mostly she struggles to bring her poorly-conceived character to life.
The film’s final third, which revolves around the rekindled relationship between George and Laura, sags a bit and it’s here that Funny People begins to feel every minute of its 2+ hour length. But Rogen’s work in those sequences is enough to pull the film out of a nose dive and bring it in for a relatively smooth landing.
A week after seeing Funny People, I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about it. I admire Apatow’s desire to stretch and I’m impressed at how well he pulled off the delicate balance of a meditation on mortality that still finds time for the adolescent improvisational humor for which his films are known. I also got a kick out of the many celebrity cameos, including Ray Romano, Sarah Silverman, James Taylor, Eminem and an unrecognizable Paul Reiser.
But I don’t see myself picking this up on DVD or watching it more than once, as I have with Knocked Up (a film that, in addition to being one of the best comedies I’ve ever seen, has its share of touching and uncomfortably real moments).
That said, Funny People is a worthy addition to an already impressive filmography. Judd Apatow may not be Woody Allen, but he’s talented enough to invite the comparison. Fifteen years and five movies from now, perhaps it won’t seem so far-fetched.