© 2009 Ray Wong
Comedians are a funny bunch, and not because they're funny, but people they are interestingly glum in real life, and perhaps there's a reason why we don't have many movies about comedians (only Punchline comes to mind). Longtime friends Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler team up to shine a spotlight at the lives and struggles of comedians in Funny People.
Well-known comedian/actor George Simmons (Adam Sandler) seems to have everything he wants: fame, fortune, a career that is still going strong, and groupies who will have sex with him any time. But he is lonely. When he finds out that he's dying of a rare form of Leukemia, he realizes that, despite the number of friends, fans and colleagues, he has absolutely no real connection with others. He goes back to doing standup comedy just to be around people. He also tries to form a real friendship by taking a green comedian, Ira (Seth Rogen), under his wing. He pays Ira to write jokes for him and eventually to become his personal assistant. Ira is only more than happy to oblige because George Simmons is his idol, plus it beats working at a deli to make ends meet.
As George becomes sicker, his doctor suggests him to go under certain alternative, experimental treatments that have a 8% success rate. Ira also convinces George to tell his friends and family about his condition, to reconnect with people he loves, including the love of George's life, Laura (Leslie Mann), who is now married to an Australian named Clarke (Eric Bana). Despite their history, Laura still cares about George and when she knows about his illness, she softens and forgives him for his trespasses in the past. They become close again. George also grooms Ira and takes him on well-paying gigs to be his opening act. Ira becomes very attached to George, who seems to have changed to embrace his impending death.
But when George receives some good news about his treatments, he suddenly feels like he deserves a second chance, especially with Laura. He realizes that Laura and he still love each other, and her marriage to Clarke is a sham anyway. But Ira thinks otherwise. He believes George is playing with fire and breaking up a perfectly good family. George and Ira's friendship begins to crack.
Adam Sandler (Bedtime Stories) specializes in infantile, lowbrow comedies and have a great following of teenage and young adult boys. However, Sandler is also capable of doing serious adult dramas such as Reign Over Me and Punch-Drunk Love. With Funny People, he is able to combine the two, playing a serious character who just happens to specialize in crude, lowbrow comedies. Now, I don't know how much of George Simmons is modeled after Sandler himself, but he is one sad character. And a jerk. Sandler does him justice, making us loathe and pity George at the same time. When he is funny, Sandler/George can be really funny, but when he is down and out and feeling the weight of his existence, Sandler really shines in giving us a solid, heart-felt performance.
Seth Rogen (Observe and Report) is the go-to guy for the roles of everyday loser with a great personality. Again, Rogen does his job here. His character is a bit of a doormat, however, and it feels awkward when he's being ordered around by George. It is also painful to watch how inept Ira is when it comes to women. For a comedian, he really is dull in real life. As one of Ira's coworkers said, "You're not a funny person!" I think in a way, he's succeeded in portraying a contradicting character: someone who is so ordinary who likes to be outrageous.
Lesie Mann (17 Again) is sexy and sincere as George's love interest. She performs well as a conflicted woman stuck in a marriage who still carries a torch for another man. Eric Bana (Star Trek) is over the top, however, as her dashing husband. He is buffoonish and comes off as fake. Jonah Hill (Night at the Museum) again excels in playing the fat little man who has an attitude problem. But we wonder if this guy has any range. Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited) is interesting as a D-List TV actor who believes he is better than his friends.
Notable cameos include James Taylor, Andy Dick, Sarah Silverman, Paul Reiser, Eminem, Ray Romano and Justin Long.
Written and directed by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), the screenplay walks a fine line between being a gross-out comedy and a drama. As a comedy, Apatow doesn't shy away from crude bathroom and sex humor. Now, some of that are probably improv from the actors; after all, we have a cast of seasoned comedians. When Apatow goes for the laughs, it's a risky move -- it's difficult to do a comedy about comedians. Some of the jokes do fall flat, and some of them are simply too infantile even for standup. When he goes for the heart, however, Apatow is usually spot on. There are some touching moments and really good performances by Sandler, Rogen, and the cast. Apatow does a great job showing the ugly underbelly of a comedian's life: it's more often than not brutal, superficial, and harsh.
However, the story meanders. At 146 minutes, it feels long. The plot is rather thin when you considers all the elements, definitely not enough to support a two and a half hour movie. There are plot elements that do not go anywhere, or feel tagged on. There are scenes that are extraneous and could easily have been cut. Some of the performances (especially Bana's) are over the top and they lack credibility. When the story focuses on the romance, it feels forced and uncomfortable. But when it focuses on the friendship between George and Ira, it shines.
Funny People is an uneven piece of work. It tries to balance between being a comedy and drama, and the result is mixed. There are certainly entertaining and touching moments, and fans of Adam Sandler would be pleased to see him stretching his range. But the rest feels like it's the "same old same old." It just makes us realize, even for a pro like Apatow, it is hard to be in the funny business.
Stars: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Aubrey Plaza
Director: Judd Apatow
Writer: Judd Apatow
MPAA Rating: R for language and crude sexual humor, sexuality
Running Time: 146 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.0 out of 10