Movie Review: Funny People

Funny People
Directed by Judd Apatow
Starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill
Rated R
Release Date: July 31, 2009

“The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis – out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.”
— Joe Gillis from Sunset Blvd.

“I don’t know if there is anything wrong because I don’t know how other people are.”
— Barry Egan from Punch-Drunk Love

“You’re my best friend, and I don’t even like you.”
— George Simmons from Funny People

Funny People: Bringing The Nasty Pain

Los Angeles, the bitch of desire, takes no prisoners. Hollywood may be her enchanted vagina, but the rest of her is a ferocious dominatrix ready to force everyone to fall under her demented spell. It is a city with an infinite supply of Sammy Glick’s ready to pleasure the bitch at whatever cost.

Judd Apatow‘s third film, Funny People, is a departure for him; it is supposed to show him as a more mature filmmaker. It certainly has many of the raunchy elements that made The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up so memorable. Judd Apatow is trying to move beyond the myth of adulthood in this film. Adulthood seems to be the Holy Grail that his characters can never quite find in his films or even the films of Wes Anderson. Adulthood is out of reach for the so-called adults as well as the younger generations who are stuck in eternal adolescent purgatory. Funny People certainly fits this vital characteristic of what makes a Judd Apatow film, but he has gone further with this film in that he deals with the show business angle — the world of stand-up comedians.

In Knocked Up he touches on the ugly reality of show business as Katherine Heigl’s Allison Scott is told by her work superiors that she essentially has to lose weight. In Funny People, Apatow has given the audience the anti-Entourage. The popular HBO series is the very essence of voyeuristic fun. The show is a fantasy that makes the process of making it in Hollywood look so easy. The show truly is a pleasure to watch even though at its heart it is essentially about parasites living off the success of one person, but they are such attractive parasites that we are willing to give them a pass because we are having such a good time watching them in action. The characters in Funny People reveal the inherent nastiness and chicanery that exists in Hollywood — an undercurrent of backstabbing to get ahead. This is also true of some of the characters who exist in Jonas Pate’s Shrink which just opened in theaters as well. Show business is part of the plot in that film as well. By the way, both films add to the allure of beauty in the city of Los Angeles. The irony of the film’s title should not be lost on anyone. Yes, they are in the funny business, but many of the characters in the film are nasty and petty. It is here where Mr. Apatow grows up just enough to show us how there may not be any adults in show business, but plenty of spoiled children. The film does represent a kind of stepping stone for Judd Apatow, but maturity is just as out of reach for these characters as it was in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.

Funny People elicits a reaction unlike his other films. The film is a long, unstable cocktail of humor and melancholy. There is enough depression throughout the film that it can easily drown out the film’s humor. This was to be expected given the film’s trailer and the film’s storyline. When the film ends, I was tempted to reach for the Hydrocodene and down it with a lot of Prosecco. Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a very successful stand up comedian and actor, who learns that he has a life threatening blood disease. After he learns he has this fatal disease, he goes home to watch images of himself on various screens at home in his lovely, but lonely mansion. If one did not know better, you would think he was a stand-in for Bruce Wayne given the solitude of his life.

Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright, a struggling stand-up comedian desperately trying to find his voice. He works at a deli during the day waiting for his big break. It is no accident that these two men will find each other in the small world that is stand up comedy. Ira and George perform on the same night at The Improv. George sees something in Ira that makes him hire him as a personal assistant/writer to him. In one sense they are kind of perfect for each other. Neither one of them has any real friends, but on another level it is the classic Hollywood parasitic relationship of the powerful preying on the weak. Their relationship is a somewhat gentler variation of the one between Kevin Spacey’s Buddy Ackerman and Frank Whaley’s Guy in Swimming With Sharks. Funny People could be seen as a variation of Sunset Blvd. and The King Of Comedy meet Bill Maher’s novel, True Story. The relationship between George and Ira is the heart of the film. While there are times that the relationship transcends its professional grounding, George is quick to bring Ira back to reality. George Simmons could very well be seen as a parody of Adam Sandler’s career of late– the successful stand-up comic who has made it as a box office star of dreadful family entertainment. It could also be a commentary on Eddie Murphy’s career as well given that he is more of a family entertainment draw than anything else. Make no mistake about it; while George is using Ira for fresh material to use at gigs, Ira is not above his own parasitic tendencies as well. Ira wants to break into the business. When George offers him the gig, he initially offers to Ira and one of his roommates, Jonah Hill‘s Leo Koenig. Ira tells George that Leo has enough on his plate. Yes, Ira backstabs Leo and knowing Leo’s persona as played by Jonah Hill, we do not doubt for a minute that Leo would have done the exact same thing to Ira. For that matter, the other roommate, Jason Schwartzman’s Mark Taylor Jackson must have done the same kind of thing to get the level of success he has on a current hit sitcom. The famous and the not famous have insatiable lust for greed and success. The bitch of desire works her charms. I feel like I am watching The Informers all over again. Ira is a willing participant in this relationship. I honestly believe this is what it means to get ahead in show business. If this idol of his youth is willing to hire him, he must feel it is worth all of the tough love in the world to go through with it. Ira is the loyal puppy to George. This point is made all the more obvious in the film’s third act as Ira is holding an adorable Boston Terrier while visiting Leslie Mann‘s (Laura’s) family. Laura is the one that got away from George. Is Ira that different from the dogs that lick peanut butter from the faces of Laura and her daughters’ faces in the film’s third act?

Adam Sandler’s George Simmons must in some ways seem like a serious throwback to one of his greatest characters, Barry Egan in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. There is a strong argument to be made that these characters are not that much different, but I beg to differ. Barry Egan was vulnerable, but he was nice. He was a kind soul who was given to moments of uncontrollable rage. Remember the scenes where he destroyed the sliding glass door or the men’s room at the restaurant, but for the most part he was a good soul who never stood a chance given the oppressive nature of his sisters. Yet somehow he finds a light at the end of the tunnel via Emily Watson’s Lena Leonard. George Simmons is a different beast. He is even different from the characters that Sandler played in the underrated Reign Over Me or Spanglish. George Simmons is once again the quintessential Apatow man-child. It seems in one of Simmons’ big box office hits he plays a character that is a baby with an adult’s head– the very essence of the man-child, but it is also the very essence of what George Simmons has become. He is a big spoiled child. Even when Simmons’ character has beaten the disease, he stills acts like a petulant child. He is a very unlikable variation of Adrian Grenier’s Vincent Chase. While he is not likable he speaks a lot of truths in the film. These scenes are where the film truly soars. He lectures Rogen’s Ira on how his generation is nothing like Simmons’ generation. According to George, all Ira and his ilk have is that they are products of divorce. They never had to really struggle like George’s generation who had to put up with the threat of getting battered by Dad. As meaningful as this scene is, it kind of does not ring true. Simmons’s generation would have been a product of divorce too and given we see him interact with his father later on in the film, the earlier scene sounds better than it should. Still, I get the point that Apatow is trying to make, but it would have sounded more authentic had Don Rickles said the line. Where Simmons does come off as authentic is when he berates Ira about his act. This is the film’s tough love. While George Simmons is certainly a step up from other recent Sandler creations in some of those dreadful family comedies, he cannot hold a candle to Barry Egan. Barry Egan is sympathetic while George Simmons is nothing more than a parasite. The only time I get an honest feeling about George is in a series of scenes meant to mend fences with family and friends. One of these scenes includes Norm MacDonald, Sarah Silverman and others, but the true highlight of this particular scene is where Eminem threatens to beat up Ray Romano. I do wish that Mr. Apatow had pushed the envelope with Adam Sandler’s character. Sandler proved in Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me that he has the chops to go deeper than anyone gives him credit for in the first place.

Seth Rogen’s Ira Wright may be the film’s only likable character. This is not saying much. The bar is not set that high to begin with as we meet the players in the comedy circuit. I think Rogen’s Ira Wright is good character for the actor. Rogen has become Mr. Apatow’s surrogate in some ways, but I feel this is a good character for Mr. Rogen to follow up his Ronnie Barnhardt in Observe And Report from earlier this year. Ira is not as delusional as Ronnie in that film. Seth Rogen was pitch perfect in last year’s Pineapple Express as Dale Denton and he showed he could hold his own in a Kevin Smith film as Zack Brown in Zack And Miri Make A Porno. By default, he gets our respect. Yes, he commits a heinous act by sideswiping Jonah Hill’s Leo to get ahead, but Leo is about as likable as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. At this point, Jonah Hill, like his Superbad co-star, Michael Cera has been typecast. Ira’s other roommate is not much better; Mark Taylor Jackson believes his own hype and has let the mid-range success go to his head. Jason Schwartzman plays the part just right. He seems to excel in Apatow’s films as well as Wes Anderson’s films. Yet it is Rogen who seems to be the most likable character in the film. Aubrey Plaza’s Daisy is convincing as a comic trying to succeed. Her scenes with Rogen’s Ira are funny and at times touching. Aziz Ansari and RZA have decent supporting roles as well.

Leslie Mann was never better than as Debbie in Knocked Up. You could not ask for a better part since she and Paul Rudd steal every scene in the film. In Funny People, Judd Apatow writes a part for her that feels like an afterthought at best. Leslie Mann’s Laura is the focal point of the film’s third act. Laura is the one that got away from George Simmons. She is married now and has two daughters. She lives a very comfortable life up north in Marin County. She is married to Eric Bana’s Clarke, an Australian businessman who does a lot of traveling overseas. Casting Eric Bana here is a nice bit considering that Rogen’s Ben Stone mentioned Bana’s character from Munich in Knocked Up:

“If any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich.”

Despite that bit of trivia, this part of the film does not work. Laura is married now. She has a family. Is she really ready to shatter that for George? He cheated on her when they went out originally. George has a strange sense of honor here. Although I feel it is as though that Mr. Apatow wanted a cop out in some ways. The relationship of the film is really about George and Ira, not George and Laura. Laura almost seems like a deleted scenes reel for a DVD. Quite frankly the relationship between George and Ira is a classic bromance like the ones depicted in I Love You, Man and Humpday. In that way the film feels like it has been overshadowed by the Judd Apatow’s produced films like Step Brothers, Pineapple Express, Forgetting Sarah Marshall or any of the number of films that have been influenced by Judd Apatow. John Hamburg’s I Love You, Man and Lynn Shelton’s Humpday get so much right. Both of which are much better films. Even though Leslie Mann is married to Judd Apatow, her part in the film is sadly wasted. He does not give her a lot to do in this outing. Because of this element, the film goes on way too long. I did not mind it in Knocked Up, but here it hurts the films. This film should not have a running time of almost two and half hours. The love interest part of the story feels like a desperate add-on.

I have always said that Judd Apatow is a Kevin Smith with mainstream appeal. That is not a slight at Kevin Smith. Many people thought Kevin Smith was trying to cash in on Judd Apatow’s appeal with his last film, Zack And Miri Make A Porno. The film starred Apatow regulars such as Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, and Craig Robinson. Still, the film had a very Kevin Smith feel to it. His dialogue and his use of pop culture is fresh. It might have been one of his most mainstream films yet, even more so than Jersey Girl. It feels that Apatow might have been gunning for Kevin Smith territory with his third film just as Kevin Smith did with his third film, Chasing Amy. Chasing Amy is a very intelligent date film about relationships with enough crude humor that it still carries the Kevin Smith brand. It was a film that showed he had grown up. I really do believe Judd Apatow was going for that same kind of transcendence here with Funny People, but he missed the mark. Funny People is too uneven at times to ever truly work. The film is a truly mixed bag like so many other high profile films this year. It works best as a film about the relationship between two lonely men trying to find connection in the face of death and career oblivion. The film serves as a painful reminder of what show business is all about. George and Ira have a classic love-hate relationship that is more hate than anything else — the strong living off the weak. When Funny People focuses on this aspect, it succeeds. The film is just as effective when it focuses on Ira’s relationships with Leo and Mark. It is all ruthlessness and greedy ambition. Everyone is trying to get ahead at whatever the cost. The film sells this point perfectly. They are all hungry for success. With this film, I wonder if Judd Apatow is still hungry or he is content with his own brand.

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