Friday, July 31, 2009

Review: "Funny People"

3½ stars out of four
Written and directed by Judd Apatow
Starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill & Jason Schwartzman

• • •

The restricted-audiences trailer:

The plot: When seasoned comedian George Simmons (Sandler) learns of his terminal, inoperable health condition, his desire to form a genuine friendship causes him to take a relatively green performer (Rogen) under his wing as his opening act.

My review: Roger Ebert brings this up at least once a year in his own reviews, but I couldn't help but think of it today, so I'll bring it up myself.

Gene Siskel famously asked himself this question if he was unsure the movie he was watching was good or not: Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch? If the answer is no, then the movie sucks.

"Funny People" might have made Gene rethink his rule.

Apatow's latest film -- only his third as director, as the pretentious ad campaign keeps reminding us -- is a very good film, maybe even a great one. But I think the lunchtime chat might be even better.

I want to hear Sandler, Apatow and Mann -- Apatow's real-life wife -- talk about how this movie affected their respective marriages, because I can't imagine it didn't.

Here is a film that finally presents Adam Sandler as a real person, not as the violent degenerate he always plays. (Yes, always. His roles in "Punch-Drunk Love" and "Reign Over Me" seemed like departures, but were really just variations on a theme.) The film goes out of its way to make George Simmons seem exactly like Sandler, a megastar whose stand-up career led to a parade of critically reviled films that children adore. In "Funny People," Sandler openly mocks the persona that made him a star, playing a character who wistfully looks back at tapes of his early career -- tapes that show the audience actual footage of Adam Sandler's early career.

The film opens with footage of a young Sandler making prank phone calls while Apatow works the camcorder and Janeane Garofalo stifles laughs while sitting on the floor. This is footage that Apatow shot when he and Sandler lived together, and using it in this way clearly implies that much of "Funny People" is autobiographical, for both men.

And what a depressing picture it paints of these men, men who are now both married with children. If Sandler's character is standing in for Apatow, what does it say that the director casts his actual wife as "the one that got away"? How do Apatow and Sandler's wives feel when they see their husbands' collective on-screen avatar screw around with bimbos and try to steal some other guy's wife? Do Apatow and Sandler really hate themselves this much?

I think the answer was yes, and I think it must be a common experience for comedians. Perhaps that's why so many of them agreed to make cameos in the film: they understand where Apatow is coming from. And, hopefully for him, so does Leslie Mann.

It must seem like I'm prattling on and on without actually talking about the movie, but that helps demonstrate how good a movie "Funny People" is, despite its flaws (which are many). There is a lot going on in this movie, which justifies its epic, 146-minute length, and it gives me a lot to talk about.

One thing "Funny People" is not, is brutally funny -- but that's not a strike against it. This is not a comedy, per se, but a film about comedy. There are funny jokes in it, yes, but "Funny People" is more interested in showing us the process than the performance.

When George and new writing partner Ira (Rogen) write their material, we smile but rarely laugh. But put that material on stage, and give it the comic timing of someone like Sandler or Rogen, and suddenly we are laughing. But mostly Apatow is interested in showing us comics as real people, not as comics. The funniest performances in the movie actually belong to the actors playing the "real" people: Mann and Bana, who play husband and wife, and their children, played by Apatow's actual daughters.

The film's many and varied superstar cameos could have dragged it down, but Apatow gives three very famous people important parts in two of the film's best scenes, scenes that dissect comedy and fame in unexpected ways. One of them I will not spoil. The other addresses Apatow and Co.'s penchant for dick jokes (which this film has in abundance). George and Ira find themselves at a corporate event with James Taylor, who performs "Fire and Rain." Ira asks Taylor, "Do you ever get tired of playing the same songs?" Taylor smiles and asks, "Do you ever get tired of talking about your dick?"

On a personal level, I found George Simmons' story to be very depressing as I struggle with my own feelings about "the one that got away." But I also identify with Ira, who is unsure around women and lacks the "killer instinct," if you will, that allows his friends to chat up women at the bar and bring them home. Rogen plays this character much, much differently than you would expect; this is not a repeat of "Knocked Up," "Zack and Miri" or "Pineapple Express." The leaner Rogen is definitely not the meaner Rogen, and his character is the film's voice of reason. It's a wonderful performance, and so is Sandler's; at the very least, they have Golden Globe nominations waiting for them.

This review has been long, but then again, so is the movie. While it isn't a painful sit, "Funny People" does feel like two completely different movies, and I have trouble reconciling the two parts. The resolution of the second part stretches credibility. Apatow also continues to have problems writing characters that aren't white and/or Jewish; the one black character is a caricature, and "Parks & Recreation's" Aziz Ansari plays a South Asian dude who thinks he's a black caricature. There's also the self-loathing that has become de rigueur for Jewish comedians.

But I wasn't expecting perfection. The lives of our protagonists are messy and complicated, so why shouldn't the movie be the same way?

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