Funny People (***)

Posted on July 31st, 2009 in Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

L'Chaim...and the turkey, it's kosher?

Funny People is the latest film from adult-comedy king Judd Apatow, and only the third that he has directed, after The 40 Year Old Virgin in 2005 and Knocked Up in 2007.  If you’ve seen either of those, or Superbad or Forgetting Sarah Marshall (where he was the producer), you should have a read on whether or not you’ll enjoy this new film.

George Simmons (played by Adam Sandler) is a successful star who parlayed his beginnings in stand-up comedy into a mega-career and a string of blockbuster films.  However, as the film opens, George receives bad news about his health, and faced with the gaping maw of his own mortality, begins to re-examine his priorities.

He picks Ira Wright (played by Seth Rogen) out of the string of aspiring comics performing for free at the local comedy club and asks him to take over as his personal assistant, and also write some jokes for him.  It’s difficult to tell if this move is selfish (he needs somebody around so his loneliness doesn’t consume him) or generous (he wants to pass on his comedic legacy by helping out a struggling nobody), and Adam Sandler doesn’t give us a clear read, because he plays the character as a realistic-feeling combination of neuroses, talent, affection, and dickish-ness.

Seth Rogen continues to be able to play a believable every-schlub, in spite of his rocketing stardom, and he imbues Ira with a sympathetic combination of self-doubt, opportunism, diligence, and nascent talent.

Part of the realistic feeling in their relationship may come from the fact that Judd Apatow wrote the script, and back in the day he and Adam Sandler were struggling unknowns together, but Sandler’s star caught fire long before Apatow’s, and it feels like some of the real-life dynamics they experienced have been folded into the story. 

I mean, if you look backward from today, you see that both Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow have parlayed their abilities into larger-than-life careers making people laugh, and back in the beginning they must have known that they were roughly equivalent in the talent department.  The fact that one of them (Sandler) hit it big before the other (Apatow) can easily be interpreted as luck, and the inexorable hand of fate plucking one of them from obscurity while leaving the other behind had to introduce some kind of tension and ill-feelings into their relationship (unless they were both saints).

And that dichotomy is played out in startling contrast in this film.  Ira Wright sleeps on a pull-out sofa in an apartment he shares with two other guys, one of whom (Jason Schwartzman) has scored a recurring role in a throwaway sitcom and finds endless ways to flaunt his new liquidity in the faces of his roommates, and the other of whom (Jonah Hill) is faring much better on the stand-up circuit and claims the other bedroom by virtue of being able to pay rent.

This leaves Ira as the bottom dog, working at a deli counter, struggling to get the comedy clubs to let him perform for free – hanging around and filling in for no-shows, and doing anything he can to try to hone his craft in front of an audience.  In contrast is the life that George Simmons leads – a house the size of a small apartment complex, meticulously tended grounds, beautiful pool with a beautiful view, and an endless stream of beautiful women who want nothing more or less than to be able to say they have slept with George Simmons.

But as the movie unfolds, we learn that George has no friends – no real friends.  He’s awkwardly estranged from his parents and sister.  Yes, he beds an endless stream of girls, but as he himself says – “They always leave disappointed.”  The scripts he gets are all throwaways, typecasting him from previous roles and/or trying to lure him into sequels.  Oh, and he threw away the only girl he ever loved by virtue of his constant infidelities.

And the story progresses from there.  I won’t give any more of it away, but it goes in directions that I would not have predicted, and, counter-intuitively for a story where the two main characters are named George and Ira,  it ends on a discordant note.  Not an unsatisfying one, but an unexpected and somewhat bittersweet final chord.

The good news is that while the story is serious, the people in the story are…well…funny, as the title says.  It’s refreshing to see people in a film who talk like people do in real life – referencing things that are happening here and now, companies and celebrities, events and reference points that are up-to-the-minute and sound like things you’d hear in a gathering of your own funny friends.  Well, maybe with a few more dick jokes – make that a lot more dick jokes, but why quibble.

By the end, the laughs have been laughed and the learnings have been learned, and it’s an engaging and enjoyable journey.  Funny People doesn’t raise the bar for Apatow, but it also isn’t a misfire – it feels like a necessary step in the evolution of a storyteller who has really only directed three films, including this one, and so could still be considered a newcomer, regardless of the fact that his name has become synonymous with the renewed genre of R-rate comedies.  I, for one, can’t wait to see the next Apatowian film.

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