In his only talking role in The Unholy Three , silent film star Lon Chaney plays a ventriloquist-turned-crook who takes the fall for a crime that he didn’t commit so that the woman he loves can be with the man that she loves. As they part, he tells her, “That’s all there is to life, a little laugh…a little tear.” Judd Apatow’s latest film, Funny People, complicates this mantra, but not in a good way.
Funny People tells the story of George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a wildly popular and hugely successful comedian. He lives in a palatial mansion on the Pacific Coast. He has cars in storage that he never drives and a garage full of free stuff that he has never used. George also quickly learns that he has a potentially fatal blood disease and a slim possibility of recovery. Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is an up-and-coming comic who lives with two other self-absorbed comics on their pull-out couch. He works at a deli during the day while getting up on stage at every opportunity to work on his comedy at night. One night, George happens to catch Ira’s bit and is slightly impressed: he asks him to write some jokes for him and then hires him as his personal assistant. While George could use a writer and an assistant, he really needs a friend. This places Ira in a difficult never-mix-business-with-pleasure position. As George’s health condition improves, he clearly needs some friendly advice, especially regarding Laura (Leslie Mann), his former love interest who “got away” and settled down with husband Clark (Eric Bana) with whom she has two daughters.
Upon seeing the trailer for Funny People, I was intrigued by the combination of a comedian facing his impending death and suddenly receiving a second lease on life. In what ways would humor help him reckon with this roller-coaster reality? How would the rest of us deal? This is the great hypothetical question: what would you do if you knew you would die next month? How would you live your life? For the first 45 minutes to an hour of this film, George seems to experience powerful revelations about the way he has lived his life. He has alienated friends and family and ruined his chances with Laura. He begins to set these relationships aright while also helping a young comic make advances in the business. However, as the film progresses for another hour and a half, these themes begin to recede in the background and transforms into another film that plays like a cheesy romance. Unfortunately, George does not seem to learn anything from the first 45 minutes of the film and remains just as self-absorbed and off-putting as ever.
Yet again, Judd Apatow seems completely incapable of writing for and/or directing women. He would do well to spend some time with Pedro Almodovar in that regard. Here, Mann’s character is more complex than her previous turns in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but that is saying absolutely nothing. Even now, the women in Apatow films seem to exist solely as pieces in a puzzle that the male characters must put together. True, Laura has her own choice to make, yet the whole process and her ultimate decision seems entirely hollow. The only other significant female character in the film not being pursued or screwed by George is Daisy (Aubrey Plaza) a fellow comedienne who outshines her male counterparts, especially Leo (Jonah Hill) who seems to phone it in here.
Funny People also suffers from a severe case of star-gazing that never quite works. This is the comedy version of The Greatest Story Ever Told in which a parade of stars distracted from the story of Jesus. The world that Apatow creates for the film just did not work for me. He clearly creates a host of successful films for George that are just as ridiculous as most of the real-life films from which Sandler has fashioned a successful career. However, these films also star real-life Hollywood comedians and actors. Furthermore, real life comedians also gather to mourn George’s illness and celebrate his recovery. Perhaps the movie would have been far more interesting had we let the lead characters keep their real names just like the cameos kept theirs.
Unfortunately, with each new film, Apatow floats further and further away from his initial big-screen brilliance of The 40 Year Old Virgin where he made a pro-abstinence sex comedy. In Funny People, Apatow fails to make a similar ironic connection, a funny movie about death.
Funny People (146 mins.) is rated R for language and crude humor throughout and is in theaters everywhere.