Friday, July 31, 2009

Funny People

"Dying is easy, comedy is hard." George Bernard's famous quote is turned upside down by Judd Apatow in his return to the director's chair. After the success of Knocked Up, Apatow took some time off to produce a gaggle of films for friends and proteges. Some worked (Saving Sarah Marshall, Super Bad), and others were Drillbit Taylor.

For a man who has had such an influence on the style of the current comedy landscape, Apatow has directed surprisingly few films (just three). And although all are worth watching, there has been a slight dip in quality with each release.

His latest takes on a life event and its unforseen consequences (much like Knocked Up). In Knocked Up, Apatow chose an event (unintended pregnancy), that though scary, was also shown in a mostly positive light. The situation, while not always funny for the characters themselves, was easily made fun of.

This time, Apatow chooses to merge his comedy with a character facing a debilitating disease and death. Doesn't quite have that same comic zing, does it?

Celebrity funnyman George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a very rich, and very lonely, man. The discovery of a rare blood disease sends the comedian in search of meaning and an attempt to relive the best moments of his life. As most of these occurred on stage in smoky comedy clubs before garnering his fame, this is where he chooses to return. A chance encounter with struggling comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) who befriends his idol, leads to a job for Ira writing jokes and working as George's assistant.

At times, Funny People is reminiscent of The Bucket List, and there are times when it takes the harsh reality of Geroge's condition seriously (though never for long when a good dick joke can be used to break up the tension). The project also gives us eerily familiar scenes of the oeuvre including the necessary crass buddy scenes discussing sex and joking around with mutual put-downs. Had Paul Rudd and Jason Segel's characters from The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up respectively suddenly appeared, they would not be out of place. This time the bro-crew is staffed by Jonah Hill, as Ira's slightly more successful roommate, and Jason Schwartzman, as Ira's other more successful roommate, complete with a starring role on his own sitcom.

Apatow knows his funny, and how to deliver jokes both cheap and clever. The title of the film is indeed apt. This is a group of funny, funny people. Where the film gets into trouble is when it tries to merge the darker, and more grown-up dramatic elements of the story with the random bits and jokes. The film includes several jokes at Hollywood's expense, including several mentions of George's big movie hits (such as "Merman"), and the popular and intensely unfunny television show Schwarzman's character stars in, appropriately titled "Yo Teach...!"

Speaking of roommates, the project reunites Apatow with his real-life former roommate, Adam Sandler. This turns out to be a mixed blessing. In many ways, Apatow is able to tailor a role specifically to the strengths of his longtime friend, and this allows the director to work footage of Sandler that was taken two decades ago into the film. At the same time, the movie becomes locked onto George and too often steers itself away from Seth Rogen's Ira - the only likable character in the film (and, perhaps not coincidentially, the character loosely based off the writer himself in this semi-autobiographical piece).

The relationship between George and Ira is the meat of the movie, but sadly Apatow isn't comfortable enough focusing only on this dynamic and has to throw a former flame (played by Leslie Mann) into the mix. This wouldn't be so bad, but the film is hijacked for about 30 minutes and becomes a romantic comedy. Only in the film's final moments is the true relationship returned to. I understand Apatow's problem. Once Mann's character is introduced and George's feelings resurface, the only two options are to lightly touch on it and move on or spend an inordinate of time dealing with the consequences of the renewed relationship. I'll give the writer/director credit for not shirking the dramatic consequences of the renewed relationship, but the film bogs down much too much during this stretch.

Although much of the humor works, some of it has that uncomfortable Family Guy feel where the writing doesn't know when to stop and trust the joke, and instead kicks a very bloody dead horse. Whether its in the the stand-up routine or the doctor with the Die Hard accent, there are moments when Apatow allows Sandler to go on for far too long.

Funny People isn't a great film, nor is it a must-see, but it is a very enjoyable and sometimes very funny film with a few jokes that will stay with you. It's also an important step forward for Apatow growing as both a director and writer in his attempt to tell more serious tales. It's certainly a flawed film, and at least 30 minutes too long, but Apatow fans will get what they've paid to see and should leave with a smile.

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