Director : Judd Apatow
Screenplay : Judd Apatow
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Adam Sandler (George Simmons), Seth Rogen (Ira Wright), Leslie Mann (Laura), Eric Bana (Clarke), Jonah Hill (Leo Koenig), Jason Schwartzman (Mark Taylor Jackson), Aubrey Plaza (Daisy), Maude Apatow (Mable), Iris Apatow (Ingrid), RZA (Chuck), Aziz Ansari (Randy), Torsten Voges (Dr. Lars), Allan Wasserman (Dr. Stevens)
“Well they’re some sad things known to man,” sang Smokey Robinson, “But ain’t too much sadder than the tears of a clown”--an easy sentiment (no offense to Smokey) that is exactly what writer/director Judd Apatow is trying to undercut in Funny People, his third feature film. It has already been suggested that Funny People is the final entry in a loose comic trilogy about sex (2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin), birth (2007’s Knocked Up), and now death, or at least the threat of death, and in that regard the film plays as a clear attempt on Apatow’s part to show greater maturity as a filmmaker, although that doesn’t mean that he discards his love of jokes revolving around bodily functions, especially when engaged sexually. The difference this time is that his main characters are stand-up comedians so Apatow can include the vulgarity but pass it off as part of his characters’ professional lives.
Taking a cue from P.T. Anderson, who recognized the depths of darkness in the infantile comedy of Adam Sandler and cast him in his quirky romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Apatow taps the erstwhile Billy Madison to play George Simmons, a comedic actor who has spent his career making bloated, asinine comedies for the masses, and as a result has remained emotionally stunted himself. Now in his early 40s and with little to show for his life but a shelf-full of bad but financially successful movies, George is informed by his doctor that he has a rare form of leukemia and has only an 8% chance of survival using experimental drugs. George takes the news of his impending doom and, rather than heading off on some spiritual journey or attempting to make right all his past wrongs, basically indulges all of the same self-centered behaviors that had already defined his life, except this time with a much darker attitude. The tears of this clown are dry.
One change he does make is returning to the stage to do stand-up comedy, which is where he meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a bright-eyed, newly slim, but struggling comic whom George decides to hire as his personal assistant. A genuinely decent person with the heart of a true innocent (one of Apatow’s favorite character types), Ira grabs the opportunity to ingratiate himself into the life of a superstar and hopefully boost his own career to match those of his roommates, Mark Taylor Johnson (Jason Schwartzman), a vapid, pretty-boy sitcom star, and Leo Koenig (Jonah Hill), a fellow stand-up comedian with a much better track record than George’s.
At this point, the film has established a peculiar, but effective tragicomic tone that takes a well-worn odd couple pairing (George the self-centered misanthrope and Ira the well-meaning ingénue) and casts it in life-and-death terms. Apatow manages a fairly impressive balancing act in maintaining a consistent sense of gallows humor that never gets too bleak while also avoiding any temptations toward easy schmaltz. Casting Adam Sandler as George is a stroke of genius because Sandler’s comedic superstardom has been built on characters who harbor deep currents of anger and resentment while maintaining a carefree surface of arrested development. Sandler has already proved that he is a capable dramatic actor, and he flexes those chops well, particularly when he is first getting the news from his doctor. Rather than going into histrionics or overplaying the shock, Sandler registers a combined sense of incredulity and complete loss, a feeling we can never quite shake even when he’s behaving with a Cro-Magnon mentality and generally mistreating Ira by drawing him in as a friend until Ira does something he doesn’t like, after which he immediately puts him back in his place by reminding him that he is “just an employee.” With the exception of some unnecessary and distracting cameos by a litany of stars that does nothing to enhance the film’s insider-Hollywood vibe and everything to draw us out of the story, Apatow rarely steps wrong during the film’s first half.
The film’s second half, however, goes into a sharp nosedive after a turn of events that will come as a surprise only if you haven’t seen the film’s trailer, which inexplicably gives away a major twist. Without revealing that here, I can say that George decides to reconnect with Laura (Leslie Mann), the only woman he’s ever loved. Twelve years earlier he lost her to infidelity (which more than anything demonstrates George’s inability to be happy even when he is happy), and now she lives in northern California with a new husband named Clarke (Eric Bana) and two beautiful daughters.
Nearly a third of the film takes place at Laura’s home, where George drags Ira along with him for a visit, which ends up relighting the old flame. Soon, Laura is talking about leaving Clarke and going back with George, which Ira and probably everyone in the audience recognizes as a disaster-in-waiting but George thinks is his ticket to redemption. The idea behind the massive subplot is sound from a thematic perspective, but it plays like a tacked-on second movie that detracts from the effectiveness of the first half, especially since it essentially replays George’s inability to grow up despite all that he’s been through. By the time the film is closing on the two-and-a-half-hour mark, it feels like too little that’s been strung out too far, and you realize that Apatow should have quit when he was ahead.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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