To call Judd Apatow‘s third directed-film Funny People his most personal is overdone, half-baked, unimaginative. But, still, unavoidable, since the film opens with home video footage from the man’s own living room vaults. Back in the late ’80s, he and Adam Sandler (star of Funny People, playing fictional extension of himself, “George Simmons”) lived together in a grungy, closet-sized apartment in Los Angeles, both going through it as struggling stand-up comedians hoping to land on The Tonight Show or die trying. Just as you’d expect any juvenile funnymen to do for fun, they’d regularly make prank phone calls, Sandler on the horn and Apatow behind the handheld camera. Kicking Funny People off with 20-year-old home videos is Apatow’s ultimate beginning sentence for a love letter to both his career and longtime best-friendship with Happy Gilmore himself, Mr. Sandler. The footage itself isn’t all that hilarious; the humor comes from more of a meta place, watching a then-unknown Sandler take visible pride and joy in making others laugh. It’s what he knows best, and capturing that for audiences, whether nationwide or home-sofa-seated, is what gives Apatow the greatest of pleasure.
It’s important to understand just how close to home Funny People is for its writer-director Apatow, because, on a whole, the film isn’t “funny” in the same sense of his two previous crowd-ticklers, The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. And going into the theater with that understanding feels crucial. While his other films still maintained the actual beating heart amidst rampant sophomoric brilliance and improv-powered dialogue, they were, and remain, at their core, meant to expose the duality of the “everyman”—-you, me, and the guy on line next to you at Starbucks are all skirt-chasers who’d hide in corners if we were still looking to cherry-pop at age 40, and who’d panic if unexpectedly presented with a lady friend’s pregnancy. But with Funny People, Apatow seems to have used the Hollywood-money-making muscle he’s built up in recent years to take some artistic chances through a film that feels like the one he’s dreamt of making all along. It’s as if Apatow could retire this Saturday, the day after Funny People opens, and live a happily fulfilled life. Of course he wants the film to reign successful, but if it’s only a fifth of the financial triumph that 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up were, I’d imagine that he’d shed no tears, punch no walls, fire no lackeys. He’s made his true “passion project,” and now he can breathe easily. [Continued after the jump]
The problem with passion projects, though, is that they’re not guaranteed to connect. The accessibility is gone, to large degrees. Fortunately for Apatow, his revolves around comedians (a profession that everyone loves, unless he or she is either comatose or flat-out humorless) and stars instantly-likeable talent. Sandler’s “George Simmons” is the biggest comedian-turned-actor in the game, but he’s lonely at heart. He lives alone in a lush mansion, occupied in daytime hours by cleaners and hired help, but no actual friends. Rather than establish a potentially-marriage-ready relationship with a woman, Simmons still cavorts with “star-fucking” chicks half his age. The lameness of this life comes crashing in front of his sights once he gets news that he’s afflicted with a rare blood disease, and it’s quite possibly fatal. From there, Simmons heads off on a self-evaluating trek to change things. Die with pride in tow and regrets truncated to a number countable on one hand.
The rest of Funny People‘s on-screen makeup is a who’s who of young comedic meteors. Seth Rogen as his young protege. Jonah Hill playing the exact same character that he has in every film since Superbad. Indie fave Jason Schwartzman enjoying his time within a big mainstream look. Upright-Citizens-Brigade-alum-who’s-now-set-to-give-Sarah-Silverman-a-run-for-his-cash Aubrey Plaza (who, for the record, I’d propose to if given the chance). Human Giant‘s increasingly-awesome Aziz Ansari as “Randy,” a showy-over-actually-funny stand-up that owes, quite negatively, much to Dane Cook.
And also, The Rza, Wu-Tang’s headmaster who steals an early scene with Seth Rogen. I wouldn’t be a Wu-Tang admiration-champ if I didn’t point that out.
Funny People is the rare effort of individual passion that should ideally cross all lines. The question is, will audiences take to the film’s sneak-attacking somberness and “How can imminent death change a person?” thought-provocation? Quite well, I’d hope. What Apatow has done so well here is balance the cathartic moments where Sandler genuinely acts—strongly, at that—with the traditional “dick” jokes. It wouldn’t be an Apatow production without the penis humor, now. And Funny People delivers the raunchiness, in bulk. That’s why the film is such a delight to watch—-it’s obvious that the filmmaker is pushing himself forward creatively, but he’s doing it in such a self-referential way that it never appears that he’s straining himself, laboring to convince the critical mass that he’s a deeper thinker. Who, unable to totally head totally toward the creative-left, peppers his examination of fame’s consequential loneliness with an endless stream of “dick jokes”; seriously, Funny People could enter the Guinness text under “Most punchlines centered on male genitalia.” Most still earn the intended chuckle, but too many others come off as lazy.
Mockery-of-the-dong somehow exists here in the same plane as honest tears, and that’s a rather accomplished tightrope act. It doesn’t hurt that Apatow has employed Adam Sandler to carry out the sobs and heartache. If you’ve never Spanglish or Punch Drunk Love, do so, first off. But, if you’ve yet to watch either/or, you’re probably unconvinced that Sandler can pull off anything other than goofy voices and infantile gags. The mutual revelation in those films, though, was that he can execute the dramatic necessities of more-serious characters while keeping his goofy charms intact. He’s so naturally unassuming and disarming that accepting his darker moments is simple, really. This becomes blatantly prescient in Funny People. When his George Simmons lashes out at a poorly-operating cable box, taking out his inner rage at possible early death on a piece of faulty machinery, it stings the heart some. Sandler pulls off the character’s heavier ticks with eye-opening finesse (not Academy Award-worthy as some bloggers and critics are over-reaching with, but still superb), but even if his performance was a mess George Simmons would gather tons of true sympathy just off Sandler’s can’t-help-but-like-the-guy aura.
Funny People falters a bit in its third act, turning the microscope away from George Simmons’s isolation to focus on his efforts to rectify a past mistake—sabotaging an impending marriage to the one girl that ever registered as more than a sexy-time partner, Laura (played by Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife and frequent, wonderful actress-for-hire). Simmons, dragging Rogen’s “Ira Wright” along, visits Laura’s home and hangs out with her two young daughters (played by Apatow and Mann’s real-life kids), all while her Australian playboy husband (Eric Bana, funnier than you’d expect him to be) is in China for business. The reconnection with Laura has been manipulated by Simmons; essentially, he uses his dying-status to open the communication door with her once again, after years of her despising him to his face while crying inside over what could’ve been. Midway into the picture, there’s a heart-to-heart on Simmons’s balcony, right after Laura learns of his illness, that delivers the warmness and compassionate smiles that most rom-coms fail to flash at the hands of “serious” filmmakers.
The final chunk could’ve used more of that. Instead, a good 10-15 minutes could’ve been sliced off from the concluding section, and Funny People would’ve been the better for it. There’s no question that this wasn’t the case, but the section at Laura’s house drags along as if Apatow’s funny-bone detached from his frame. The grueling and emotionally-taxing process of writing everything that came before it had weighed his brain down, and he involuntarily settled on cruise control. The jokes aren’t as sharp, the character exchanges go on longer than the ones before, to their faults. The film doesn’t become boring, but I found myself looking at my cell phone’s clock, wondering when the resolution would finally say “Hi.”
Yet, even in this third portion of the film, Apatow’s earnestness scores from three-point-land. The scenes with Laura’s daughters and Sandler are some of the movie’s most comedically touching, largely because there’s a natural chemistry at work. Sandler clearly knows and loves the two little girls, since one would imagine that he’s practically a godfather to each in the real world. The bit where they play the “peanut butter game” (where each person rubs peanut butter on his/her face, lies on the kitchen floor, and cringes as the dog licks it off) seems like something that Apatow and his daughters do at home in between his script-writing. More so tell-tale of Funny People‘s personal dominance than the PB-game, though, is a scene where Laura shows Simmons video from the oldest daughter’s recital, where she sang a solo during the school’s production of Cats, in full costume. The footage is genuine, something probably shot by Apatow himself. By allowing the audience to watch his first-born having such honest fun at the positive-expense of her father’s pride isn’t voyeuristic—-it’s the ultimate sign of trust. Apatow loves his fans, and he wants us all to share in his happiness. Speculation, naturally, but I can’t help feeling that such is the case.
Will I go back and rewatch Funny People as much as The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up? My instant answer is “I doubt it,” but something tells me that this is one I’ll grow to love more as repeated viewings settle in, and the attachment amplifies. I just hope that Judd Apatow continues down this more-mature path, steering away from any urge to dabble in Superbad territory on his directing front.
Know what I’d love to see, come to think of it? A Magnolia-like ensemble piece from the mind of Judd Apatow. A sprawling, multiple-storyline epic underscored by laughs.