Review: “Funny People”

August 2, 2009 at 10:54 pm Leave a comment

The third feature film from writer/director/producer extraordinaire Judd Apatow, Funny People seems to have everything a comedy needs to have: funny actors, a funny script, and the word ‘funny’ in the title.

But it’s not really that funny.

Adam Sandler is  George Simmons, a successful comedian who’s done everything: stand-up, movies, television; you name it, he’s done it.  Now, past what Hollywood would term his ‘prime’, Simmons lives alone in his very large house (except for his small staff), regrets breaking off ties with his ex-girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann), and generally living his life like a typical Hollywood has-been.  Until he discovers from his doctor that he has a rare form of leukemia and chances of recovery are slim-to-none.  Simmons then hits the stand-up circuit one last time, only the tone of his jokes have changed for the worst.  His jokes are darker, more cynical, and generally not something you’d want to hear at the comedy club.

It’s at one of these stand-up nights he meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an up-and-coming comic who’s roommates also happen to be comics, albeit slightly more successful; Mark (Jason Schwartzman) has his own sitcom and Leo (Jonah Hill) gets more gigs than Ira does.  While Ira wasn’t the best comic performing that night, George takes a liking to him and hires Ira as his new personal assistant, a job that requires setting appointments, entertaining guests, and talking him to sleep at his bedside.  It’s a strange job, but provides Ira the opportunity to write jokes for the legendary comedian.

As the trailer for the movie gave away, we find out that George actually won’t die, that he’s beaten the odds and his disease has gone into remission.  While this should’ve been the happiest part of the movie, it somehow alters the tone of the film, and might work against it in the end.

Adam Sandler gives a strong performance as George Simmons.  While I don’t think this is Oscar-worthy, he definitely has a few scenes here that could count among his best dramatic work (although that’s a short list).  Simmons is basically going through a mid-life crisis on top of the life-threatening disease that’s slowly killing him.  Sandler plays this well; not allowing us to feel sorry for him, but rather except his inevitable death and be entertained as he struggles to put his life in order before he expires.

Seth Rogen is also good here.  I have nothing against him, and I find Rogen very funny in most of his roles, but I think I’m going through a Seth Rogen overdose.  He’s in a new movie every few months!  However, he manages to pull off some pretty good scenes and holds his own well against Sandler.  I actually felt bad for his Ira Wright.  It’s almost pathetic to watch him work behind a deli counter when his roommates are living the life he wants, and that basically means he wants to do what he loves and get paid for it.

Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real-life wife, actually has some good scenes here.  Usually relegated to supporting roles in many films, including her husband’s, she’s given a bigger role here, one that is tied closely with Sandler’s character.  It’s a nice change of pace for her, and I wish she’d get more roles like this.

My issue with the movie is not that it isn’t funny (because it is in some scenes), but that it might be a little too introspective for its own good.  For about 70% of the movie’s  2-hour-and-change runtime, it’s almost like this redemption tale of George Simmons, with Ira Wright as the sidekick.  Then, once he discovers he’s well again, it becomes a morality tale on how to screw up the one chance for a do-over.  Simmons basically turns into an unlikeable character.

It could be said that this was trying to break a formulaic structure (work backwards, essentially.  Have our hero go from bad to worse, instead of from bad to good).  But I feel like the final act was rushed and didn’t resolve much.  That being said, this was possibly Judd Apatow’s most heartfelt story since The 40-Year-Old-Virgin (despite its raunchy comedy, it’s a very sweet film).  Funny People really isn’t about people being funny, it’s really just about people.  Sure, they happen to be comedians and say and do funny things, but don’t ‘regular people’ say and do funny things?  YouTube is a perfectly example for that.

Something must be said of the cinematography.  Janusz Kaminski, Director of Photography on films like Saving Private Ryan and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, lensed this movie.  It’s interesting to see what a cinematographer like him, who’s done some incredible work on some unconventional films, can do on a more conventional movie.  There were a couple of times when I was distracted by his choice of visuals.  One scene featured some strange, old Hollywood-style close-ups and soft focuses on Leslie Mann’s Laura.  Another scene had those flashes of white that generally accompany parts of film being exposed to light, in quick succession while our two leads play with children (Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann’s real children, Maude and Iris).

Funny People may not have the audiences rolling in the aisles, but it’s an interesting movie to watch for its screenplay.  Fans of Adam Sandler may find this a nice medium between roles like Punch Drunk Love and his usual goofball fare.  It is one that I can recommend for the look it gives into the world of up-and-coming comics, and for the message it strives to tell at the end: don’t squander a moment in your life, especially if you’ve been given a second chance to live it.

7.5/10

(images from Yahoo!)

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