A film review by Craig J. Koban August 6, 2009


2009, R, 146 mins.

George: Adam Sandler / Ira: Seth Rogen / Laura: Leslie Mann / Leo: Jonah Hill / Clarke: Eric Bana / Mark: Jason Schwartzman

Written and directed by Judd Apatow

Judd Apatow’s FUNNY PEOPLE is one of the more sophisticated and ambitious dramedies of the last few years.  Unfortunately, it is also the most awkwardly constructed and misshapen.  

In short: it's a mess.

There is no doubt that this a passion project for the critically lauded writer/director/producer and there is ample evidence to easily suggest that FUNNY PEOPLE is a personal effort.  The film traverses along an always difficult tonal trajectory – comedic raunch mixed with heartfelt sentiment and somber, angst-ridden melodrama – and, for the most part, it’s a moderate success, to be sure.  However, after leaving the theatre my overriding summation of the film is that it’s ultimately a dissatisfying and self-indulgent effort for a filmmaker that, to his credit,  has radically altered the landscape of R-rated comedies over the last few years.  Perhaps most exasperating about the whole enterprise is that it’s nearly undone by an unnecessary running time of two and half hours, which can only be attributed to (a) Apatow’s growing ego with his newfound directorial clout or (b) how his fanaticism for the project has countermanded any semblance of narrative flow and editorial discipline. 

Apatow has very little to apologize for; his last two efforts - 2005’s filthy-minded, but tender and sweet, THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and the even more polished, funny, and introspective KNOCKED UP from 2007 – highlighted how gifted he is at fusing raw, scatological shenanigans with a keen understanding and compassion for his characters.  Not only were those two films riotously funny (and very deserving of their R-ratings), but they surprised me for how smart and observant there were in terms of dealing with their characters and their respective dilemmas with a sincerity and dignity.  In a way, Apatow both subverted and transcended the hard-R sex and rom-coms with both of these features: They had an undeniable charm for how much heart he invested in them.  Apatow is a real master of bait and switch, promising us something most lay audiences will readily expect (and to some degrees, receive), but as weird and offbeat as the films were with their premises, he never lost sight on grounding the characters in a believable manner: Lesser comedy directors never make you care as much about their characters like Apatow does. 

FUNNY PEOPLE, in many respects, once again shows him dealing with similar character archetypes that he has excelled at before: men who are both at ease around their hetero-liftemates, but uneasy when it comes to living their lives in meaningful and productive ways.   On top of this Apatow adds another new thematic dimension: how fame and fortune affects a person’s life choices and how these choices, in turn, have calamitous effects on other people.  While ruminating on celebrity culture FUNNY PEOPLE simultaneously explores the darker and more dreary underbelly of mortality and how fear of impending death acts as a catalyst for personal growth and change.  The fact that Apatow stirs all of these divergent ingredients into his mixing bowl is noteworthy enough: Few filmmakers – whether in the comedic or dramatic realm – would be daring enough to survey such fascinating and complex material while fusing it with the type of lewd and crude comic sensibilities that people also have come to expect in most adult comedies.   

The real problem is that all of these elements never gel together with any reasonable cohesion and symmetry.  Consider the film’s gargantuan length: FUNNY PEOPLE feels more like a self-absorbed vanity project for Apatow than a thoroughly involving and funny dissection of its themes.  The film is absolutely proof positive as to the necessity and importance of editing for a film to succeed.  There are many scattered scenes that work marvelously throughout FUNNY PEOPLE that were intermittently moving and hilarious, but the film lacks a definitive connective tissue.  Moreoften than not, I felt like Apatow was so enthusiastic for the material that he could not bring himself to trim off its rough edges...or to stop and say “when.”  The film in its present state has the aura of a rough and clumsy work print in need of some finesse; this is not final cut material. 

FUNNY PEOPLE concerns a very famous and loved comedian named George Simmons (Adam Sandler), whose fictitious life has more than a fleeting resemblance to the actor that plays him.  He was once a struggling and somewhat insecure stand-up comedian that got a big break and then went on to a very lucrative film career starring in - as far as the clips for the faux films within the film show - comedies that are jaw-droppingly awful (one film is called MER-MAN which shows George as a…well…half man, half fish, and another wretched one shows his head superimposed on a baby’s body: these films certainly seem eerily autobiographical to Sandler’s own career resume of dreadful comic turds).  Alas, despite the relative lack of worth of his film roles, George has become a filthy rich celebrity, but his fame has led to estrangement from most of his friends and past loves, not to mention that he has become increasing introverted and egotistical.   

As FUNNY PEOPLE’S shockingly spoilerish trailer has dubiously revealed, George discovers that he has a rare blood disorder that will apparently take his life.  He is, of course, shocked by this fatal news, but seems unsure how to process and deal with it.  He tries to talk to Laura (Leslie Mann), a former love of his life that he ruined via infidelity, but she wants nothing to do with him.  His parents and siblings are also barely on speaking terms with George anymore: he essentially has no one in his empty existence.  At this downtrodden point in his life George has a fateful meeting with a young, starving comedian named Ira (a remarkably slimmed down Seth Rogen) that has worshipped George since the beginning of his career.  During one night of stand-up George takes in Ira’s act and seems moderately impressed with what he sees: maybe  he sees in Ira a reflection of his past, or perhaps George’s pure loneliness and isolation from the outside world draws him to Ira.  No matter, because George decides to hire him as his new assistant/joke writer and part of the new job also involves him being the only person to know about his condition.   

Ira, of course, jumps at the chance to work for his idol, but the more he works under George – both writing new material for him as well as performing menial tasks – the more he soon discovers the darker side to his stand-up hero: George, even while facing death, is a selfish, mean-spirited, self-centered, and narcissistic a-hole that treats most people around him like dirt.  Things do change for George (which, once again, that pesky trailer has already spoiled for us) that George seems to be going into a state of remission from his illness, which gives him a new lease on life.  His newfound health gives him the motivation to win back the woman of his dreams in Laura, and he coerces the naďve Ira to assist him in a plan to win her affections back, which certainly is a difficult task seeing as she has two kids and is married to a strong, handsome, and career-minded Ausie named Clarke (Eric Bana). 

FUNNY PEOPLE is undeniably strong in many areas.  For starters, the film’s level of emotional honesty with its characters is refreshing: most of them speak and react to one another with a scathing hostility at times, even when, deep down, there is mutual affection.  Secondly, Apatow – who has known Sandler for years and struggled early on in his career to make it as a stand-up comedian alongside him, but ultimately failed – does a bravura job of encompassing that tightly wound up and feverously neurotic world that comedians exist in.  I have always had an impression that stand-up acts are beyond confident in their abilities, but FUNNY PEOPLE wisely points out that men and women in this profession struggle daily with their lack of confidence.  That, and the film shows the how they use the all of their pent up pains, sorrows, and personal wounds in an effort to make people laugh.  FUNNY PEOPLE intuitively understands this world through and through. 

The film is also remarkably funny at times and is ripe with many sidesplitting one-liners (often perpetrated by George at Ira’s lack of experience: “Does your act designed to make sure no girl will ever sleep with you?”).  The verbal jabs come fast and furiously as the comedians within the comedy lash out on everything from pop culture to male/female relationships to the inadequacies of their...ahem...manhood (perhaps too many jokes involving the latter are in the film for good measure).  The film also has many very hysterical cameos by famous funny men (by far, the most hilarious, and odd, pair of cameos belongs to Eminem and Ray Romano, which leads to the rapper nearly accosting the former sitcom star and ends with Ira mischievously deadpanning, “I thought everyone loved you!?”  There is also a brilliantly macabre and funny scene involving George and Ira mocking George’s doctor for how much of a striking resemblance he has to a particular villain from the first DIE HARD film.   

The performances are also resoundingly stellar.  Sandler easily gives a career high performance that – as films like PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and SPANGLISH have demonstrated, albeit to intermittent effect – he is often better when playing in roles rigidly against type and under the radar.  Sandler’s George has a caged intensity and vindictiveness that is not as playful as the actor's past comedic creations (he is not a nice, nor likeable, man) but he also reveals subtle instances of a self-pitying vulnerability (he knows that he has sold out years ago, which certainly hits home for Sandler in more personal ways than one).  As a foil to the hotheaded and impulsive George we have Rogen’s Ira, equally funny as Sandler in the film as well has effectively modulating his tricky performance between hilarity and pathos.  We also have other Apatow regulars, like Jonah Hill as Ira’s wise-talking roommate, who is accompanied by Jason Schwartzman as an actor that has made it big on a indefensibly bad high school sitcom called “Yo, Teach”; both generate huge laughs.  Finally, we have the two trickiest performances of the bunch in Leslie Mann and Eric Bana, the former gives a gently and thanklessly empowered performance as the “woman that got away” from George and Bana nearly steals the show from everyone with his droll and energetic portrayal of Mann’s somewhat clueless husband.   

Yet, as much as I laughed uncontrollably throughout the film, found its themes complex and compelling, and genuinely favoured its performances, FUNNY PEOPLE is too long, too bloated, and too lumbering for its own good.  By the time the film reaches the climatic showdown and love triangle between George, Laura, and Clarke, it has already hit the two hour mark with another 30 minutes to go, which by that time feels punishingly and restlessly long already.  Also, considering the film’s absorbent length, many other side-plots that once seemed poised for development are curiously abandoned (like Ira’s flirtatious love affair with another fellow stand-up comic, played with a nail-biting sarcasm by Aubrey Plaza, which seems like it could have easily been the victim of an editor’s trim).  Ultimately, if one considers the story that Apatow was trying to tell, would any reasonable filmmaker conclude that a running time close to that of a LORD OF THE RUNGS film is required to dutifully tell it?  Doubtful.  FUNNY PEOPLE aggressively shows how a filmmaker’s fierce ambition and drive for a project can often cloud reason: a much leaner and tighter edit of the film would have made for a much more satisfying final product.

My heart is telling me to recommend FUNNY PEOPLE on its many merrits, but my analytical mind is telling me that I cannot.  There is no doubt that Apatow’s film is richly rewarding in terms of tickling our collective funny bones while stirring us with its absorbing characters, routinely strong performances, and intricate themes.  It is also frequently hliarious look at the insider’s world of modern stand-up comedians in Los Angeles, not to mention a recurrently moving rumination of life and death and how some people may be incapable of changing for the better even when death is knocking at their door.  Unfortunately, the sum of great parts of FUNNY PEOPLE struggles to create a harmonious whole.  Apatow’s ardour for this project thoroughly shows, but his discipline does not.  The film is a distorted and muddled effort that is not reflective of his past masterful screen dramedies.  It's disappointingly a film of artistic hubris gone amok and unchecked.  

FUNNY PEOPLE is a mess - a very funny, well acted, and ambitious mess - but a mess, no less. 

  H O M E