(No longer in theaters)
Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel, Clayton Townsend
Jul 31, 2009
It’s hard to believe that Judd Apatow’s sour, maudlin Funny People is only the third film he has directed. His man-child universe, with its mixture of juvenile raunch and white-bread family values, has conquered American comedy. But this film is meant to be an advance: Apatow’s first “grown-up” movie. That man-child protagonist is now in his late forties and facing death and has never had a mature relationship—never made a commitment. George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a stand-up comedian turned dumb-comedy movie star, is diagnosed with a fatal cancer and copes by returning to his old club haunts and baffling people with sardonic free-associations. He picks up a youthful protégé, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who’s meant to be the stand-in for us mortals in the audience: flattered by access to celebrity and dazzled by its perks (private planes, women) but increasingly appalled by the star’s selfishness. Even as the scared and lonely George tries to atone for past misdeeds, he radiates entitlement. Sick or well, he’s dead inside.
Playing dead is tricky, but Sandler gives it a go. He barely opens his mouth when he talks, as if he’s too powerful to expend the effort—he knows people will lean in. He’s very touching when he asks Ira to sit by his bed and converse until he falls asleep, like a rich baby who can hire someone to coddle him. (He does a good sleepy-baby voice.) Sandler isn’t afraid of plumbing his dark side, but Apatow fails him: Scenes of George’s self-pity drag on too long, and as the character loses stature, Sandler recedes from his own vehicle. Rogen doesn’t fill the vacuum. He’s wrong for the part of the male ingenue: He looks pained, as if he’s laboring to hold his gee-whiz expression in place.
It would help if the characters had distinctive worldviews as comedians, but their routines have no juice. Ira’s are all about dick size, and Apatow cuts away from George’s just when they start getting interesting. These men aren’t enlarged by their work; if anything, their jokes diminish them, and it’s hard to feel sympathy for people who put so little soul into their work. Apatow has been around L.A. long enough to capture how showbiz males (especially Jewish) compete with one-liners: some good, most lame, many hostile. But the banter between Ira and his more successful apartment-mates (Jason Schwartzman and the tubby Jonah Hill) grows tiresome. Funny People feels insular, as if Apatow’s whole world consists of nerdy jokesters who were angry, lonely kids who got rich beyond their dreams and fucked women who’d never have talked to them in high school but are deep down still angry.
Apatow transcended all that—and wants us to know it—by marrying Leslie Mann, who was hilarious as Katherine Heigl’s acid sister in Knocked Up and here gets quite the pedestal. She plays Laura, “the one that got away” from George and married an Australian businessman (Eric Bana). Apatow lingers on her bright eyes and darling overbite and sweet little bod, but he hasn’t given her any good lines or an interesting subtext, so what’s the point? It’s a waste of a precious resource. Laura’s children are played by Apatow and Mann’s daughters, Maude and Iris, and the casting tips you off to the fate of George and Laura’s rekindled romance: Even translated into fiction, Apatow would hardly break up his own family. George has to become a dull schmuck to conform to Apatow’s moral agenda.