When Judd Apatow put his producer-promoter's hat on to publicize Jake Kasdan's very funny (and underrated) parody of biopics, Walk Hard, he said that it was "fun to make fun of movies that reek of the filmmakers' belief that they were going to win the Oscar." Damned if he hasn't made that kind of movie himself.
Apatow's Funny People tells the story of an Adam Sandler-like comic megastar, George Simmons (played by Sandler). With the help of a tyro stand-up and comedy writer, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), George faces up to the emptiness of his deluxe, careerist and hedonistic Los Angeles life after discovering he has leukemia. It's got a smattering of hearty laughs and a career-high performance from Sandler.
Apatow has empowered him to perform like an experienced human being instead of an obnoxious or gratingly ingratiating boy-man, or even the risky or touching eccentrics he played in Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me. Sandler works his usual stylized masks and grating voices into a realistic performance. The intensity of his unvarnished gaze is surprisingly charismatic; the moments when he lets all artifice fall away are electrifyingly emotional.
But Funny People is like Terms of Endearment done in a milieu where the most endearing compliment anyone can give refers to penis size - and that doesn't make the movie any better, only more contradictory and self-defeating. It's endless and formless (the way some of us found Terms of Endearment), pushed along by heart-tugs and abrupt or melodramatic turnarounds.
About half of it is given up to good-hearted Ira's self-appointed task of forcing George to be honest with his "friends" and family. But why? George rightly says that his friends are just people he hangs out with; most of his family do not know much about him and can't stand what they do know.
Apatow mixes that up with Ira's evolution, under George's tutelage, from a loser at love and laughs to a polished performer and plausible boyfriend who might ultimately be able to bring a new sensitive-guy spin to ribald stand-up. This hipster odyssey would be more seductive if it didn't require the unexpectedly sensitive and limber Rogen to paste a repetitive pained smile on his face for the last third of the movie.
Apatow doesn't make Ira an angel - in the movie's boldest stroke, Ira fails to tell his comedy-writing roommate, Leo Koenig (Jonah Hill), that George wants to hire both of them. But in depicting the contrast between Ira and his less-sensitive roommates (the third is Jason Schwartzmann's Mark Taylor Jackson, a sitcom star), Apatow courts monotony with countless riffs on a terrible classroom TV show, Yo Teach!
Just when Funny People appears to have completed its natural arc, it makes a turn north to San Francisco, where George tries to reconnect with Laura (Leslie Mann), the love of his life. They broke up when he cheated on her a dozen years ago. Now she's parenting two irresistible little girls (played by Apatow and Mann's own daughters, Iris and Maude Apatow) with a handsome Australian husband (Eric Bana), who turns out be a Down Under version of the pre-leukemia George when it comes to honesty and fidelity.
Will George win her back? The moment of truth is like the soap-opera equivalent of a punch line. The affection Apatow has for his actors makes this failed seriocomedy bearable, but this really is a case of punch-drunk love.
Apatow has said he didn't pattern the movie specifically on any real comedian, but it is, I think, his idea of a biopic. He complained at the time of Walk Hard that biopics suffered from compression. What afflicts Funny People is its decompression. Apatow lets too much air into the scenes. He uses improvisational methods that he hopes will capture his actors' most offhand and authentic shades of feeling, but instead of revealing depth, they betray hollowness.
The movie achieves resonance only as a group portrait of stand-up comedians. Scene after scene suggest insights about the way these comics mine for laughs. At their height, they tap veins of pain such as parental abuse, then transcend them through hyperbole - or take silly domestic pastimes involving peanut butter and dogs to riotous extremes.
Apatow falls into the same trap he complained about in Walk Hard: Whenever a woman walks into a scene, she's apt to be a wife or a whore. Or, at best, another comic, such as the girl of Ira's dreams, played by Aubrey Plaza with a funny flattened affect. She's called Daisy (as in "fresh as") and she deftly flattens the cliches of phallic humor and song lyrics. But she's just a sideshow in Funny People. The movie is skewed toward Ira helping George discover the quality of true friendship. George even stops kidding Ira for changing his last name from Weiner to Wright.
In the end, Funny People is mostly about finding Mr. Wright.
(Universal Pictures) Starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Leslie Mann. Directed by Judd Apatow. Rated R for language and sex humor. Time 146 minutes.