What Happens to Funny People?: A Review

“You know what would make a good story? Something about a clown who makes people happy, but inside he’s real sad. Also, he has severe diarrhea.” —Jack Handey

 This Deep Thought—if you replace the word “diarrhea” with “leukemia”— kind of sums up the conceit of Judd Apatow’s new film (technically only his third as director, but his influence as a producer/writer has been felt everywhere in comedies recently, from Pineapple Express to Superbad), Funny People: Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a beloved but lonely comic on the verge of death, who befriends/employs an upstart comedian, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen).

Simmons is in some ways an analog of Sandler himself (an important difference, however, is that Sandler, unlike Simmons, is married with two children): A stand-up comedian turned star of popular, critically panned films—Re-Do, about a man-baby, Sayonara Davey!, about a white man living with a Japanese family, My Best Friend is a Robot, about, well, you can probably figure it out— that bear a certain resemblance to Sandler’s own filmography.

While these films bring Simmons fame, fortune and success with women, they don’t bring fulfillment, and when Simmons gets sick, the only person he tells is his new assistant, Wright; Simmons has no close friends or family he feels comfortable confiding in. The movie, then, presents Simmons as the proverbial “sad clown”: He makes other people happy, but not himself.

All of this may have the sound of a formulaic, heavy-handed morality tale. As in, “Wealthy and famous actor goes through near-death experience and realizes that he’s rich in material possessions… but poor in love,” but Apatow, Sandler, and Rogen never let it veer into such schlock. Simmons is not the typical “funny asshole with a heart of gold” that populates certain, particularly Apatow, movies; Simmons is just as an asshole.

This fact is something that gradually dawns on the audience as the film progresses: We are not necessarily meant to fall for Simmons as easily as we are used to falling for Apatow’s flawed, but innocent and well-meaning, heroes like Andy in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Ben in Knocked Up, Evan and Seth in Superbad or Peter in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The friendship that grows between Simmons and Wright is not your typical Apatow bromance, as Simmons never treats Wright as an equal and is always quick to cut him down when he gets too comfortable.

Funny People is being received as Apatow’s first mature or “grown-up” movie, and while these reviews tend to either overestimate this film, or underestimate Knocked Up, et al., this is certainly Apatow’s most serious/least funny movie. As the name of the film implies, Funny People is more interested in showing funny people than being funny. As a result, the characters, almost exclusively comedians (including Aziz Ansari’s “Raaaaaaaandy,” who we see disappointingly little of), say funny things, but there is little humor outside of the dialogue and the snippets of on-stage moments we see.

And yet, despite these limitations, Funny People is a great movie. The dialogue, consistently Apatow’s greatest strength as a writer, is natural and funny (and now that all of the characters are comics, they finally have an excuse for their equal deftness with one-liners), and the characters are more fleshed out and developed than in any of Apatow’s previous movies. Instead of a cast of similarly inexperienced but well-intentioned, passive men, we have characters that are, in varying doses, career-driven, mean, shallow, moral, patient, aggressive, and egotistical. 

The “knock” on Apatow’s movies, and the recent romantic comedy genre in general, has been their glorification of lazy, stunted, immature males—often at the expense of straight-laced females. This is what makes his movies both appealing and somewhat formulaic: Man/men in rut, pursues woman, learns he must “grow up” to win her, quick montage of “growing up,” man/men get/s girl/s.

But Funny People deviates from the mold. The “girl” Simmons pursues is actually a married woman, Laura (Leslie Mann, wife of Apatow), his ex-girlfriend from long ago who now has kids (played, of course, by Apatow and Mann’s own progeny) with her Australian husband, and his pursuit of her does not lead him to grow up, but rather to regress into his selfish, entitled, movie-star attitude; it’s not simply a matter of the right woman pulling the man out of his immature funk.

Sandler, for his part, plays Simmons very well (Sandler, despite his apparent readiness to do commercial junk like The Waterboy and Little Nicky, actually can act, see: Punch-Drunk Love): He resists the urge to play him as a lovable, well-meaning goofball and instead plays up his narcissism and self-absorption, making him less likable, but more realistic. At the same time, Simmons is self-aware, repentant and, above all, eager to get a laugh—he doesn’t stop making jokes even when he is getting his diagnosis.

The film spends only a brief amount of time on exactly how related the two defining aspects of Simmons’ character—his sense of humor and his self-loathing—are, but it is the crux of the film. Apatow is interested in how “funny people” can ever be serious and how, if they can’t, this can potentially make them unhappy: There is a telling moment, during a rift in the Simmons/Wright friendship, where Simmons tells Wright that he isn’t funny. Wright says fine, he’d rather not be funny if being funny means being like Simmons. Simmons replies: “Bad career move.”

This link, between being funny and being lonely, is reinforced when Laura shows Simmons and Wright a video of her daughter singing a song from “Cats.” Wright and Laura tear up, but Simmons calls it “hilarious.” For a brief moment, these seem like the options Apatow is presenting: You can be funny and witty and alone, or you can be married.

The last third of the film, in which Wright and Simmons leave their home court of one-liners and barbs and stand-up comedy for the home life of Laura and her family, is where this contrast is clearest. Simmons wants to rekindle things with Laura, but Wright keeps urging them to leave—he knows they don’t belong there and wants to leave before they do any lasting damage. Wright knows that, while Simmons may claim to want the family Laura has, he isn’t really up to the task.

This final act of the movie loses a lot of the humorous dialogue (we are out of the realm of comedians, after all) of the first part of the film, and at times seems to replace it with ludicrous and knee-jerk plot developments. But it resists formula and holds interest at every turn. Apatow also refuses to fall back on a simple, easy resolution.

All of this room for nuance represents an admirable break from the traditional mold, even if it sometimes takes the movie in an odd direction. The end of the movie has, at times, a hastily put together feel, but not in a “We’re striving for a quick solution” way, but more of a “We’re in uncharted waters here and we’re not quite sure how to handle it” way.

It’s too early to determine whether this movie will be as memorable and rewatchable as Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin (and Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Superbad), but I think it’s fair to say that it probably won’t be—it’s not as quotable or funny as those movies and, not coincidentally, not as good (just how causally related those two things are is an interesting debate). But it is certainly more ambitious, and it signals that Apatow is not sticking to a formula with his movies. I, for one, am excited for his next one.

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] Rotten Tomatoes, the problems with expectations. Leave a Comment In his review of Funny People, John claims that “this is certainly Apatow’s most serious/least funny movie. As the name of the film implies, […]

    Reply

  2. […] me. Both of these facts made the movie seem like something I would like, but also made me expect the film to be funnier than it was. In other words, the same things that made me see the movie made me expect to […]

    Reply

  3. […] has offered a much more negative (and more succinct) review of Funny People on Twitter. And while I disagree with him about this particular film, he has set off an interesting debate on Twitter about the concept of […]

    Reply

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