Funny People (2009) dir, Judd Apatow
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan, Leslie Mann, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman
By Alan Bacchus
It’s a shame there was no one around to put the brakes on Mr. Apatow because there’s a great picture in Funny People, a really great picture, which unfortunately gets squandered by its excessive running time, as it goes 30 minutes past its stop sign.
It’s the third film as director for Apatow after two critical and box office hits. So it’s no surprise, really, that this effort would stray from the fluffy male-centric situation comedies and delve into something more serious and sophisticated. As such, Funny People feels like his Magnolia – a film that, come hell or high water, would appear on the screen in the form imagined in his mind.
Adam Sandler plays a version of himself, a successful actor/comedian called George Simmons, who has become a superstar celeb via a series of money grabbing kiddie comedies. While selling his soul he’s replaced his once loving relationship with his wife with a depressingly huge mansion, a series of emotionally detached sexual affairs and a general air of sullen self-loathing. When he learns he’s come down with a life threatening blood disease he decides to cleanse his career with a stand up comedy tour.
Enter Ira Wright (Seth Rogan), a budding comedian sleeping on his buddy’s couch, trying to make it big in Hollywood along with a million other like-minded performers. Ira happens to be at the right place at the right time when he does a short stand up gig after a surprise visit to the club from Simmons. Impressed by his writing, Simmons employs Ira as his assistant and joke writer. With Ira under his wing Simmons goes through the process of medication for his affliction and his soul, a relationship that grows slowly and reluctantly into the type of genuine male romance Apatow is so skilled at creating.
For 1 hour and 45 minutes Apatow crafts a touching, but not sappy, relationship drama between two interesting characters. Sandler’s portrayal as Simmons rings true as the decadent celeb with buckets of money but nothing to spend it on. Sandler plays Simmons with little sympathy for much of his relationship with Ira, showing him tough love as a mentor, and Seth Rogen brings across genuine optimism, warmth and sincerity in his performance as Ira.
Between Rogen and Sandler, Apatow uses humour, grace and truth to show the constantly conflicting life of celebrities and specifically comedians. Bipolarism and other such psychological disorders seem to strike comedians more often than other entertainers, which is why many of them turn to drugs to feed a pain that jokes can’t mask. Apatow keeps drugs out of this picture, but reveals these self-hatred and lonely afflictions with poignancy.
He deftly manages tones of melancholy and gut busting raunchy dick-joke humour. The milieu of the LA stand up circuit is rich with authenticity and, of course, teaming with enough gags to satisfy the comedic quotient of any of his other films.
And then there's the third act. The film wraps itself up in character and plot satisfyingly at the 1 hour 45 minute mark, leaving the audience at a place of reflection and revelation for both Ira and George. But Apatow keeps the film going, introducing Eric Bana as the husband and father to George’s pined-after ex-wife (Leslie Mann). This third act essentially reboots the film and its characters without the focus and inspiration of the previous two acts. It meanders on as a domestic drama toward a sloppy slapstick conclusion that leaves all the characters in the same place as at the end of the second act.
It’s a shame. I can only discount this ill-conceived detour to a point. But the film’s excessive length is just too much to ignore, thus reducing a potential four-star film into a mere three-star one.