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Funny People: Intermittent Hilarity with a Dying Comedian

About two hours into Funny People, you start to see how the rest of the movie is going to go, and you start longing for the genitalia jokes and zingers that have peppered the previous 120 minutes. Truth be told, Funny People does have some of the biggest laughs of the year, and it’s Apatow’s most ambitious film to date. However, as a film, it doesn’t deserve extra-merit solely due to ambition, because the final half-hour is long, repetitive, and flimsy. It is as if all of these characters didn’t want to make the changes necessary in these types of films, so at the end they haven’t really learned anything other than their inability to learn. Some critics have called this a mature film… but if the audience leaves only admiring the genitalia jokes, how successful were the more mature elements?

George Simmons is the biggest star of comedy in America. He is played by Adam Sandler, in a role that is full of old Adam Sandler footage, reminding us constantly that this is the role Sandler has been living as all his life. Sandler knows this, but is unafraid to make Simmons a self-centered “star,” a real jerk at times and a guy who can make you feel incredible just by giving you the time of day at other times. There are lots of shots of Simmons wallowing in self-pity, which will be truly obnoxious if you find his character detestable. I found Sandler’s performance as a play on the celebrity who acts like a jerk because it’s his defense mechanism to prevent people from getting too close to him. We see it in his behavior with women, where he sleeps with them not because he likes it, but because it’s what they expect. He tells his friends they have giant penises, not because he’s seen them, but because he wants them to feel good. He’s trying to make people happy habitually, not because he is extra-nice, but because it’s the only thing he is good at.

After finding out that he is going to die soon from a blood disease, he goes to the Improv to do some stand-up comedy on a whim. He gets too dark, and the comedian after him makes fun of his perceivable depression. That comedian is Ira, played by Seth Rogen in the most wide-eyed performance he’s ever given. It’s a style that suits him– he is constantly deriding himself, full of insecurities, and his awkward attempts to ingratiate himself to others around him provide many of the biggest laughs in the film. The chemistry he shares with Sandler is easy and natural, with Rogen having no problem deferring the “star role” to Sandler. Strangely enough, this makes Rogen’s performance all the more noteworthy; it’s easily his best performance since Knocked Up, and maybe his best ever.

Ira becomes George’s assistant, writing jokes for his return to stand-up. Rogen doesn’t play his character with a clean conscience either– at one point, he steals jokes he wrote for Simmons, and he denies his friend Leo (Jonah Hill) a chance to write for Simmons as well. He is ambitious, trying to crawl his way towards success. However, unlike Simmons, Ira is far more prone to fall on the more “morally sound” side of an argument, especially about women– he doesn’t like sleeping with someone who sleeps with someone else. He gets upset when his sitcom-star roommate Mark (Jason Schwartzman) sleeps with a female comic, Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), who Ira has longed to date.

Up to this point, the movie is great. The interactions are all natural, and we get the sense that George and Ira are learning from one another. However, Apatow hits some serious speedbumps when it comes to Simmons’ relationship with Laura (Leslie Mann). He was going to marry Laura, but when at the beginning of his fame and fortune, he cheated on her more times than he could remember. Now, Laura has been married for 12 years, and Simmons is trying to get back in her life. The problem is… Apatow doesn’t make Simmons work for it. He tells her he is sick, and she immediately says her current husband is cheating on her and she has always loved him. The rest of the film then becomes the inevitable consummation of this longstanding love, and how the love triangle of Simmons, Laura, and her husband Clark (Eric Bana) resolves itself.

Since we don’t understand why Laura immediately goes back to Simmons, the plot necessitates that Clark be an egocentric jerk who is way too into sports, drinks too much, and rambles about having sex with female celebrities in front of his wife. After all, if she’s held a candle for one egocentric jerk, the one she’s married to has to be really over the edge. When Laura tells George she’s leaving Clark for him, we expect George to be happy, since in movies like this, people learn lessons. Yet predictably, George is not good at the family life– not even as good as Ira, who likes the family that currently exists. This section of the film lasts far too long, and makes us long for the incredibly funny comedy scenes. When the film ends, George’s “change” doesn’t have the emotional impact it should, because the detour taken in the narrative showed very little change, and even sets up the Hollywood standard Heroes-Fight-And-Inevitably-Reconcile-For-Heartwarming-Ending.

This is not to say I wouldn’t recommend the film. It’s very very funny. The stand-up comedy scenes have authenticity to them, especially when the comedians are bombing. Sandler carries much of the film, but I found myself siding with Rogen and laughing hardest at his one-liners (his response to Clark and his children’s screaming in Mandarin Chinese at the dinner table made me laugh harder than any one-liner this year). Jonah Hill does a great job playing Jonah Hill, per usual, and the housemate chemistry Rogen, Hill, and Schwartzman share is as good as the male bonds in Apatow’s previous two films. Aubrey Plaza is exceedingly funny as the female stand-up, and I could have watched an entire film of the courtship between Ira and Daisy. James Taylor, Eminem and Ray Romano all have amusing cameos, and Apatow’s use of “famous friends” again gives the audience the feeling that they’re peeking in on a real world rather than being presented a cinematic one.

Funny People is longer than Apatow’s first two, and falls apart more than the other two since his aim is higher– both the previous films had terrific heart without branching into suburban drama. Suburban drama might work for Sam Mendes and Todd Field, but with this cast of actors, the audience (rightfully so) expects more laughs per minute than Funny People really delivers. Oddly enough, Apatow could have given us a great comedy had he stuck to the comedy scene and let George learn just from Ira, without the Laura/Clark subplot getting in the way. While the shot Apatow is taking is admirable, aiming high isn’t his strong suit– he achieves far more success aiming for the crotch.

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~ by russellhainline on July 31, 2009.

2 Responses to “Funny People: Intermittent Hilarity with a Dying Comedian”

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