With Funny People, Judd Apatow aims to make an epic movie (in length, not scope) from the tossed around bit that most comedians are just sad sack and tear-tracked clowns that run incompatible not only with the opposite (or same) sex, but with long-term relationships in general. George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a comedian/movie star who's paid his dues, been paid in full, and is now coasting on cruise control, sexing any lady he'd like and rolling out his lifelong wit at the nudge of an elbow - or at the scent of $50,000 check. George's is a life lived spectacularly, but one that peaked too soon. Sure, in this economically pinched era that we're wading through, drawing sympathy for a character that has a gardener, maid, and personal chef is a tough task, but Sandler's golf hat loafing never trips into annoying self-loathing. George doesn't whine about his "I can't breathe" super stardom, he's just lonely as hell, and that's a universal discomfort that reaches across all socio-economic lines.
In the middle of a "coming out" montage of illness confessions to George's friends and family, and in a post-remission bar scene that celebrates the superstar's second chance, Apatow's camera drags over the faces of George's/Sandler's comedic peers. Norm McDonald, Dave Attell, George Wallace. These are all faces we're pop-consciously familiar with in some capacity based on our personal pockets of entertainment consumption, but to witness each performer out of his element, away from the settled-in sitcom sets and open-mic stages, is to see vulnerable men. Eyeing the thinning hair atop Paul Reiser's head and catching a glance at the deep wrinkles in Ray Romano's face is like noticing the early attachment of flab to a boxer's physique for the very first time. This pack of lifetime jokers represents a rare subgroup of entertainers: unattractive comedy scribes that found the yellow-brick loophole to screen fame but now stand dumbstruck that the camera's gone.
What Apatow's ambitiously taking on here is a deeper peer into the opposite end of David Seltzer's catch-a-break stand-up symposium Punch Line. If that film was about the bloody-knuckled climb up, Funny People is about the gingerly, gravel-sliding trip back down. It doesn't always work, as when Apatow steers the film into San Francisco so George can take a stab at undoing the damage he's done to his one true love (Leslie Mann). The whole sequence feels a mess, an overly extended mix of cutesiness, sentimental swings, and an over-the-backboard comedic shot from Eric Bana. Only Seth Rogen survives it.
We can play the game of wondering whether Apatow wrote this chunk simply for the benefit of inserting his wife (and daughters) into a sizable role in a sizable film, but I think more likely it's a case of poor judgement, a still fresh director making a forgivable mistake. Funny People feels like it wants to touch on too many bases, as if Apatow became overstimulated in his idea factory and ended up writing himself into a whole. The script yearns to be an elaborate one, but its author hasn't reached that level of sophistication yet. Funny People could've driven home its point without overturning so many stones. That game plan ends up presenting a twofold problem: the more characters that are revealed, the more storylines that are left flopping like unattended water hoses (I still feel uneasy about the way George's sister and parents were plopped onto the screen only to be forgotten by movie's end). Worse, these mishandled open storylines only distract from the central focus of George, Ira, and the ballad of the lonely comic.
All that critiquing, and I still think Funny People is impressive. I gotta admit, I never thought I'd think of Seth Rogen as anything more than a typecasted actor who could faithfully portray the sexist, pothead schlep (he was at least reliable at that), but after his dark turn earlier this year in Observe & Report, and more definitively here in Funny People as the steady, mellow, and oddly touching sideman to Sandler, I am new-born believer in the guy. In short, Rogen appears to be a much more intelligent actor than I had given him credit for. As Ira, the happenstance apprentice/assistant to George Simmons, Rogen's eyes are free of the gruff and smarmy cynicism that always unimpressed in shows/films like Freaks and Geeks, Pineapple Express, Zack and Miri, and The 40 Year Old Virgin. There is a pink-ish innocence to Rogen here in the way he calmly stands opposite his more aggressive counterparts. Don't let Ira's sheepishness fool you, he's the strongest character in the film.
Despite its inappropriate length, when Funny People ended I was left wanting more. I think that means I would like Apatow to return to this territory of "the funny people", to give me more of those entertainers at the bar who can give us a little of that much needed healthy distraction from our own troubles, but don't know who to turn too when they need a little of it for themselves.