Few films delve into the strange world of stand-up comedy. It is a tightly knit group of witty, damaged emotion machines that claw away at each other just for one more laugh like addicts needing a fix… but in a funny way. It is an art form that is often overlooked, and rarely examined. The examination is what makes Judd Apatow’s hilarious, but uneven “Funny People” worth the overlong running time, though its often serious tone might be a turn off for those expecting Apatow’s third film to be more like his first two.
Nothing is worse than watching a comedian die on stage, but it is even worse watch a comedian who is dying die on stage. Having to follow him is the worst of all as newbie comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) finds out one night going up right after legend George Simmons (Adam Sandler). When he doesn’t totally bomb Wright lands a gig with the ailing Simmons writing jokes and doing grunt work. The relationship between these two is the backbone of the film as Simmons miraculously recovers from his disease and sets out to find meaning in his shallow, but charmed existence.
Seeing this interplay between the young and the old guard of stand-up comedians is interesting as Simmons laments his lonely existence peering down on the little people from his perch in the Hollywood clouds. On the flip side are Ira and his friends, up-and-coming comic Leo (Jonah Hill) and banal sitcom star Mark (Jason Schwartzman) who have a bitter rivalry which spurs them on as much as it hamstrings them.
The script, written by Apatow, is too uneven to be a true success. The humor is genuinely gut-splittingly funny. Granted there are more penis and testicle jokes than can be counted, but the same could be said about a lot of comedy sets over all. The stand-up sets that Sandler, Rogen, and Hill all do are worth the price of admission, and it would have been a treat to see them do it live (they shot the sequences in front of real audiences). That’s the funny side.
The sad side is the “Movie” part of the film. Striving to be more than just a comedy Apatow forms the film around Simmons’ disease and how it does or does not change him. Sandler’s acting chops haven’t shown so well since “Punch Drunk Love.” He displays the frustration that George feels, as though with all his money and fame he is better than mortality. Dying of a rare form of Leukemia is something lesser people are supposed to do, not him.
Rogen works well as the lesser person. His Ira is trying to break into comedy, but his act is too juvenile, reflecting his emotional maturity. Right now Rogen doesn’t show the promise of taking the Jim Carrey route, funny man turned dramatic actor, his dramatic turns in “Funny People” never really get to the place which would make them moving, but his comedic talent more than makes up for that fact.
Where the film starts to get choppy is after the mid-point. George and Ira go on a road trip to see George’s “One that got away,” Laura (Leslie Mann). As some of George’s more unsavory characteristics start to bubble to the surface the film takes a stranger turn, and we start to lose sympathy for Sandler’s character. While it is entirely intentional the shift in tone doesn’t play as well as it should. None of the characters have anything dire at stake so it renders the pathos intended thin and unchallenging. Toward the finale the film putters out without any kind of cathartic climax. It just ends. The resolution is so truncated that it feels like Apatow realized that the two hour and twenty five minute run time was too much, and just stopped adding stuff.
Setting the film amongst the ranks of stand-up comedy I would have liked to see it dig a little deeper into that world. The competition between the younger men serves as light B-story fodder, and the comradery of those who have walked through fire and survived is fun to watch, but there is very little of the back room banter on the club scene, or the struggle to get just five minutes of stage time. Those things are assumed rather than shown, and feel a little too easy as a result.
Apatow, however, does add in some interesting touches. The use of real footage from Sandler and Mann’s real life acting reels adds a hint of realism to the film. Cameos from Chris Rock, Norm MacDonald, Sarah Silverman and many other big names in stand-up helps as well. In addition Simmons being a thinly veiled version of Sandler himself gives us a view into the life of a mega-star, warts and all.
Those warts make one question how Apatow, who was roommates with Sandler early in their careers, actually thinks of Sandler. With the utter stupidity of the movies in which Simmons starred in the movie world it seems neither Sandler or Apatow have much favorable to say about the movies which made Sandler millions. Which is a shame, because even if “Funny People,” is filled with funny people, and it is uproariously humorous, nothing will touch the brilliance of a little film called “Billy Madison.”
El Luchador Rating: 4 out of 5 (4 out of 5)
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)