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Summer Movie Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Funny People

I read somewhere a reviewer refer to Judd Apatow’s new film, Funny People, as his “James L. Brooks movie.”  Well, if James L. Brooks isn’t making James L. Brooks movies anymore (his last film was 2004’s Spanglish, which not coincidentally was also the last time, before Funny People, that I enjoyed a movie starring Adam Sandler), then I for one am more than happy to see Judd Apatow fill the void!

I’ve been hearing a lot of disappointment from people who have seen Funny People.  I suppose if one goes in expecting the laugh-a-minute experience of The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, one would be disappointed.  There is a lot of very funny humor in Funny People, but also some lengthy stretches without any laughs at all.  This would be a big problem if what was happening in those laugh-free-zones wasn’t compelling — but I found everything to be VERY compelling.  Funny People is a much more adult, nuanced film than Mr. Apatow’s first two movies, and while I positively ADORED those first two films, I am also thrilled to see him exploring some deeper territory here.

Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a wildly successful comedian and star of many hugely popular and sort-of-juvenile, well, Adam Sandler-type movies.  Despite his success, he is all alone in his huge mansion (except for his house-keeping staff, of course), and struggling to deal with the news that he has been diagnosed with a form of leukemia.  Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright, a young man trying to break into the brutally tough world of stand-up comedy.  Their paths cross one evening when George drops by a comedy club where Ira is waiting to perform, and Ira quickly gets sucked up into George’s orbit.  Ira is star-struck by getting to spend time with his idol, and desperate to taste some of the massive fame to which George has become inured, and George — though he’d never admit it — is lonely and looking for some sort of companionship, having driven away all of his former friends, girlfriends, and family.

Rogen and Sandler are both at the top of their games, creating fully believable, lived-in characters that feel completely real.  I have often said that I really like Adam Sandler’s comedy, but that I can’t stand his movies.  This remains true for me.  But I have really enjoyed the few films in which Sandler has actually tried to ACT — films like Spanglish, and Punch-Drunk Love.  In those movies, I was quite impressed that Sandler could actually create a real, sympathetic character, and he does similarly high-quality work here.  Rogen too turns in probably his most human performance here (at least since Freaks and Geeks).  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve LOVED Rogen’s comedic performances in his recent films (such as the aforementioned 40 year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, along with Superbad, Zach and Miri Make a Porno, and many others).  And he certainly garners some yucks in Funny People.  But he also plays things fairly straight for most of the movie, and he demonstrates a great confidence in allowing others to get the big laugh lines.

It probably helps that so much of the material in the film seems like it was based directly off of the real-life experiences of Mr. Apatow, along with Rogen and Sandler.  Adam Sandler IS a goofy oddball who has reached extraordinary heights of fame.  Rogen IS only a few years distant from his years of struggling (as a writer, not a stand-up comedian, but the similarity is there) in Hollywood.  And Mr. Apatow spent a long time in the “wilderness” before attaining critical and commercial success with The 40 Year Old Virgin.

Frankly, one of the main charms for me about Funny People is just how specific all of the references and characters in the film are.  I don’t know where the line is between Apatow/Rogen/Sandler’s real life-experiences and the fictionalized stories created to dramatize the film lies, but pretty much everything in the film feels dead-on and “real” to me, even little details like the wardrobe and set-dressings.  There’s a scene, early in the film, in Ira’s room, and you can see behind him, hanging on his wall, a framed photo of Garry Shandling.  Shandling is dressed in a suit, seated at a desk chair, and facing the camera with a slightly puzzled expression on his face.  Behind him is his desk, which is on fire.  I know that photo — and I remember cutting it out of a magazine when I was a kid (and I’m certain I still have it in my possession somewhere)!  Now, I hold no aspirations to become a stand-up comedian, but I do remember being a kid and idolizing certain comedians (many of whom I still idolize!), and there’s something so RIGHT that that particular photo would be hanging on Ira’s wall.

As with all Apatow productions, the main cast is surrounded by a wonderful array of brilliant comedians and actors who fill out the supporting roles.  Ira’s roomates are Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), and Leo Koenig (Jonah Hill).  Mark has achieved some measure of success in Hollywood, starring in a Head of the Class style stupid sitcom called Yo Teach.  (Check out this fake sitcom here in two brilliant clips that are way-more substantial than what we actually get to see of Yo Teach in the finished film.)  Leo, as with Ira, is still struggling to become a successful comedian.

Leslie Mann portrays Laura, the “girl who got away” over whom George pines.  Mann remains as gifted a comedic actress as ever, though I thought that several of her scenes veered too far into schmaltz.  I’m not sure if I should fault her or Apatow’s directing for this.  (Sadly, one of the film’s most major mis-steps was a major scene for Ms. Mann.  In the very second scene in which she appears in the film, she meets up with George, who has told her of his illness.  She breaks down and weepily declares that he was the love of her life.  I found that scene to be WAY too over the top for my taste — and also totally unnecessary, narratively, as it was already totally clear that George considered HER the love of HIS life, and I would have preferred to hold the suspense until later in the film as to how exactly she felt about him.  The weepy scene also soured me a bit on Laura’s character and Ms. Mann’s performance — though I do think she is quite solid for the remainder of the film.)

Complicating Laura and George’s relationship is the small fact that she is married with two kids.  Mann and Apatow’s real-life kids make a return appearance (after dazzling as Mann and Paul Rudd’s kids in Knocked Up) and are once again very cute and very funny.   Eric Bana positively kills as Laura’s Australian husband Clarke — it’s an astounding emotional and comedic performance from an actor not well known for comedy.  Finally, I also advise you to keep your eyes peeled for a wonderful array of cameos from comedy big-shots (Norm MacDonald, Paul Reiser, and many more that I won’t spoil.)

There’s a lot that Mr. Apatow has to say in Funny People — about the comedy world, about Hollywood, about mortality and marriage and the way people respond to tough situations and difficult choices.  The film is filled with humor, but a simple comedy this is not.  Is it a little long?  It surely is — and I must admit that a leaner cut of this film would probably be a stronger film.  But I was more than happy to spend 2 and a half hours in Mr. Apatow’s world along with Ira, George, Laura, and all of their crazy friends and family.  Bring on the inevitable even-longer Director’s Cut on DVD!!

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