As a director/writer/producer/guru, Judd Apatow has been the hallowed king of comedy movies for the last few years -- it seems just about the only complaint people have about his work is that it's too long. Funny People, his third directorial effort, won't change anybody's opinion on that matter. However, he's taking his time for all the right reasons, and the result is a raucously funny and poignant love letter to standup comics.
Apatow casts his former real-life roommate Adam Sandler as George Simmons, a comic superstar who learns in the movie's opening scene that he suffers from a rare blood disorder that will likely kill him within a year. This news gives him the impulse to go back out and work on his standup, something he hasn't done in years thanks to the massive success of his movie career. At a club, he meets struggling standup Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), takes a shine to him, and hires the young man both to write jokes and to be his personal assistant. Ira, who's been sleeping on a friend's pull-out couch and working a day job at a deli, enjoys the glimpse into the superstar lifestyle, but soon the protégé discovers how selfish and egocentric his mentor really is.
The Terms of Endearment-meets-raunchy standup comedy concoction hums along nicely, but Apatow takes an unexpected detour in the last hour when George and Ira travel to see Laura (Leslie Mann), George's ex-girlfriend. The two spend the day with her and her two daughters (age ten and six, played by Mann and Apatow's real-life daughters), and George and Laura rekindle their old romance. However, her resolve to leave her philandering husband (Eric Bana) starts to crumble when he makes a surprise return home from a business trip and joins everyone for a dinner -- a scene that best exemplifies Apatow's ambitious mixture of drama and comedy, and how he can utilize uncomfortable pauses in conversation to achieve the response he wants from the audience.
At their weakest moments, Apatow's 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up felt padded with extended comic digressions -- you got the sense that he indulged his performers a little too much. Funny People, on the other hand, is stuffed to bursting with plot details. As if he were borrowing a page from the James L. Brooks playbook, Apatow wants to wring laughs and tears out of almost every scene -- and, more often than not, he pulls it off. This is a testament to his writing skills, as well as to the performers.
And Apatow's actors are across-the-board brilliant. Spanglish, Punch-Drunk Love, and Reign Over Me all showed that part of Adam Sandler wanted to expand beyond the man-child comic persona that made him an A-list movie star -- but by playing a character as famous as he himself is, Sandler achieves his finest work so far. He makes George seem naturally funny, but he also never lets us forget that this über-wealthy Hollywood celebrity is a self-hating, egotistical monster. Those two sides of his personality aren't compartmentalized, but rather they feed each other. He's a remarkably unpleasant guy, and Sandler neither sanitizes nor glorifies his pain. It's an impressive portrait of a man who's gotten everything he ever wanted, and then realized he doesn't want any of it. And he's paired beautifully with Seth Rogen, who cuts way back on the smart-ass vibe and instead plays Ira like a potty-mouthed, wide-eyed kid. He exudes an inherent sweetness, even when he's delivering a hilarious routine about his grandfather's genitals.
The film is so loaded with great little details, and so full of big laughs, that it's easy to forgive the faults -- and it does have some. Yes, everything resolves itself rather tidily, and the star cameos might be just a bit too self-congratulatory. And at two hours and twenty minutes it might be overly long. But none of these things detract from how entertaining and moving the whole thing is, in large part because he knows so much about this world. Apatow has created a clear-headed and big-hearted look at what drives the people who do exactly what he does for a living. He knows and understands what makes comedians tick -- and he makes us care about them as much as he does.
Funny People on AllMovie
Funny People (2009)