It seems like comedy has more to do with putting yourself out there completely than anything else. If it’s not funny then it’s not funny, likewise for being overly offensive or dated, but if the comedy is non-committal than everything else will fall short anyway. With his latest direction, Funny People, Judd Apatow exercises this notion possibly to a fault. The director throws everything he’s got into his third feature film, an exercise made more strenuous by the looming uncertainty of what this film is…Comedy? Drama? Both? Neither? B-Movie Sex Horror? No…no, it’s not that.
George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a lingering Hollywood comedian whose endless stream of “ok” movies have left him with impressive real estate, and not a lot else. It’s the “Aged Rock Star” dilemma that we’ve all come to understand thanks to Behind the Music. While the faceless masses have been good to him, Simmons’ personal life remains barren. Diagnosed with a terminal cancer, George decides to go back to his roots of stand up comedy and it’s here that he meets the young and struggling Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). In becoming George’s personal assistant, joke writer and de facto best friend, Ira learns of George’s illness and insists that he tell the people from his past. George runs the gambit of family and old comedian friends and eventually reconnects with the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann), who has since built a family with the brash and lovably Australian Clark (Eric Bana). George and Laura fall easily back into their old selves and quickly establish a relationship built more on nostalgia than reality, and when ultimatums inevitably get tossed around, the dilemma of adulthood rears its head. Another man-child bites the dust.
We find Adam Sandler again donning the tragedy mask and showing some serious struggle in his character. It’s not the cancer that’s bringing him down, that’s just the impetus. What really pulls the frown on this guy is his state of existence, and Sandler does a fine job of wallowing in it. Alternatively he gets to be charming as hell. The back and forth of George and “Schmira” breeds some truly fun moments between the two. And Ira Wright is a fresh glance at Rogen’s chops. I tend to prefer sensitive Rogen to the asshole present in so many of his films, and sensitivity is here in abundance. Instead of yelling at you to get a laugh, he’s crying, blowing snot all over his face and hands, and almost satirizing vulnerability. It’s nice.
The difference between the films Judd Apatow has produced and the ones he’s directed is the type of comedy you’re getting. Apatow productions are all over the place, pulling humor from all avenues and never hesitating to go low brow, often with great success. The director Apatow though seems to be much more considerate in his films, allowing the comedy of daily life more room to breath. This is conversational and situational comedy, and by avoiding the constraint of ridiculousness the story can move organically opposed to the stop and start of your average joke/story/joke Apatow production. It’s not that this is necessarily better than a Ron Burgundy or Talladega Nights, but it’s a very different beast, and the one that I have to believe Apatow prefers. Knowing this, it makes sense that stand up comedy would live so prominently in his latest film. Shooting his characters on stage, delivering punchline after punchline allows him the most bang for his buck. It lets the actors shine, allows Apatow to do the improv thing which he holds so dear, and does nothing to halt the story. This is very smart filmmaking.
Where audiences will start to wilt is in the final act. Here, the muddy waters of infidelity and commitment and adulthood are explored thoroughly and with few emotional stones unturned. No one will argue that the action of the third act doesn’t require complexity and depth, but I have to assume that once most viewers have settled in to the back and forth of drama and comedy, getting through this final stretch will feel tedious. Expectations have a lot to do with this. It’s Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen…Comedy, right? Unfortunately people probably aren’t watching the film for such a grand dose of depression and real life. I, for one, am really impressed with this film for it’s ability to shirk expectations and still accomplish so much. There’s never any question of whether or not Judd Apatow knows what he’s doing. This movie, like so many others that have come before it, is purely a matter of taste. Some will love it, some will hate it, and that’s ultimately far better than everybody simply watching it.