Funny People, the third and latest film from writer/director Judd Apatow, is a big, sprawling mess of a comedy-drama, overly ambitious in its intentions and so insanely personal it can only be called self-indulgent. It's also Apatow's best film to date and might just be one of the best movies of 2009.
If it sounds like I'm still trying to process my feelings about Funny People, it's because I am; with a running time of 2 1/2 hours, multiple story lines and dense, dark, complicated characters, the movie has a lot to unpack. That's rare for a comedy, even from Apatow. Though his films have always couched non-commercial elements like sweetness and originality in more palatable dick jokes -- and, better yet, have all showcased a real point of view (rare for studio comedy) -- Funny People gives the audience a great deal more to work with than either The 40-Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up. The delicate balancing act Apatow pulls off (which becomes more and more exciting as you realize he's going to stick it, like watching a pitcher as you realize he's going to throw a perfect game) is precisely why the movie may not find mainstream success. Audiences looking for Apatow's usual mix of scruff and vulgarity will be put off by the film's darker dramatic aspects, while those looking for an adult relationship film may not be able to stomach the film's abundance of (very funny) sexual humor. It may not please a whole lot of people, but it's kind of perfect for someone like me.
For those who don't already know, Funny People stars Adam Sandler (Apatow's former roommate) as George Simmons, a mega-successful comedian and movie star (of awful, high-concept family dreck that lampoons Sandler's own body of work) who's recently been diagnosed with a rare and probably fatal blood disease. After self-destructing on stage at a comedy club, George meets impressionable wannabe-comic Ira Wright (a wide-eyed and sweet Seth Rogen), who he hires as a joke writer and assistant. While Ira is given access to one of his comedy idols, he also learns just how angry, sad and lonely life is inside of Simmons' mansion and private jet.
When George's diagnosis improves, he and Ira head off to win back the "girl that got away," a former actress and love of George's life played by Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann. The trouble is, she's already got a husband (Eric Bana) and two kids (the couple's actual children, Maude and Iris).
None of this plot description touches on Ira's roommates, one a competitive and mercenary comic (Jonah Hill) and the other the marginally successful star of a crappy sitcom called Yo, Teach! (Jason Schwartzman). Or the cute and quirky girl comedian Ira's got eyes for (Aubrey Plaza). Or the detailed and loving look into the L.A. comedy scene or the numerous comedy cameos (from the likes of Ray Romano, Paul Reiser, Norm MacDonald, Sarah Silverman, Aziz Ansari, Bo Burnham and many, many others). It's easy to see why the movie is so long; Apatow simply has too much story to tell.
It's clear from the opening moments of Funny People (following a short home movie taken in the '80s by Apatow himself of Sandler making prank phone calls -- yet another example of the director weaving biographical reality with fiction) that Apatow is up to something different. It's a more ambitious, more mature film he's making; the movie is messy, sure, but gloriously so. His heavy hitter is Sandler, who has never been better in a movie (not even the great Punch-Drunk Love). His George Simmons is a selfish, entitled prick of man completely cut off by success but never victimized by it; while I don't believe that this is what Sandler's really like, the performance is so good that he convinces me it could be. Though it's likely to alienate his fans happier seeing him as The Zohan, it's a fearless performance that makes the movie work. Without it, the whole thing might sink.
What's special about Funny People beyond the complexity of its characters (there aren't any real bad guys, just flawed people with problems and varying shades of grey) is the way it understands comedy and comedians. Apatow has created a true love-letter to stand-up, showing reverence for an older generation (classic albums cover Rogen's apartment walls) while still acknowledging the ways comedy has changed (Hill's character finds a way to market himself using YouTube). He also never stops to be over explanatory or "teach" the audience about comedy; Apatow assumes we know as much about comedy as the film expects us to. How nice that a film doesn't insult our intelligence.
Like Annie Hall did for Woody Allen, so Funny People may usher in a new chapter in Judd Apatow's career. He's created a mainstream comedy-drama (while very funny, the movie is more like the films James L. Brooks used to make) that challenges the audience and asks that they stay invested while some deeply flawed characters make some major mistakes. It's the film he's been working towards for years now, and it may have forced him to cash in on nearly all of his goodwill in Hollywood. For better or worse, he's laid himself bare in a way that few directors do -- particularly in comedy -- and ought to be commended for it. Funny People may be too messy to be considered a true masterpiece, but such is its charm. It's also the first Apatow film to achieve a kind of greatness, and finally the movie that stand-up deserves.
- Funny People is rated R for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality.
- Running Time: 146 minutes
- Release Date: 7/31/09
- Studio: Universal