Adam Sandler Is Dying For Laughs: A Review Of ‘Funny People’
I am a huge fan of Freaks and Geeks. When I first saw it, I was shocked at how good a network television show could be. A lot of that had to do with creator Paul Feig, who based much of the High School comedy-drama on his own experiences growing up. His sweet-natured, whimsical tone melded perfectly with Executive Producer Judd Apatow‘s wry, sardonic humor.
Unfortunately, Freaks and Geeks was canceled after one season, after which Feig and Apatow had a bitter falling out. Too bad – because ever since then Apatow’s work has been very uneven. Sure, his debut feature The 40-Year-Old Virgin is quite good–maybe even a modern classic at this point–but for all that it gains in laughs, it loses in emotional depth. All of the characters are broad caricatures without any real weight. Is anyone honestly supposed to buy that Steve Carell is actually a virgin?
Knocked Up is a hyper version of this. Is the viewer supposed to believe that Seth Rogen would be able to sleep with Katherine Heigl? The crude, simply put titles that these movies are labeled with match their structure well: there’s not much beyond the punchline.
Funny People, Apatow’s third directorial effort after producing a whole lot of other comedies, is a bit of a departure. While the title is still obvious (Funny People? I’ll be the judge of that), it’s far less crude… and so is the movie.
Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a snarky, self-centered comedian who stars in movies so stupid that they don’t even seem real (even by fake movie-within-a-movie standards, MerMan is pretty weak). We quickly learn that Simmons has a blood disorder that may or may not kill him. The ticking clock forces him to re-evaluate his life.
One of the first things he does is return to his roots as a stand-up comedian, making surprise appearances at small clubs in LA. This is how Simmons meets Ira Wright (Rogen, cloying as ever), an aspiring comic who becomes his protege and the only member of his sad entourage.
The two end up doing everything together, including making a pilgrimage to Simmon’s ex-lover’s home in the hopes of winning her back. Her name is Laura (played by Leslie Mann, who has an affable presence). Since, in real life, she is Apatow’s wife, her closeups are many and always flattering. If Woody Allen used to subconsciously cast his then-girlfriend Mia Farrow in shrill, neurotic roles, Apatow is the opposite: he very consciously casts Mann in roles that make her appear as an angel. One can sense his relief that somebody like her would marry a man like him.
For the most part, Funny People glides along smoothly, and Sandler, in his best performance since Punch-Drunk Love, delivers many laughs as a complicated and mysterious manchild. But there’s not much more to it than him.
While I enjoyed that the movie doesn’t rely on one big gimmick to get by like Apatow’s last comedies (if you don’t consider the cancer device a gimmick, that is), there’s really no fluid plot to speak of.
It’s one, long (well over two hours) melodramatic journey broken unevenly into two parts: 1) dealing with dying while touring the stand-up circuit, and 2) spending time with Laura’s family in suburbia. And besides Sandler and Mann’s characters, nobody else is even remotely interesting.
Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman and Aubrey Plaza turn up as Rogen’s roommates and love interest, respectively, but they are about as paper thin as you can get. The pop culture references that these “funny people” are constantly spewing out in Apatow’s world have grown so tiresome and predictable. We get it already–one-liners about Harry Potter are hilarious.
The same goes for the celebrity cameos. In Robert Altman‘s Hollywood satire The Player, the cameos add a rich dimension to the material; in Funny People, they are distracting (one minute Paul Resier is riffing on the absurdity of life and the next, Eminem is ranting about how much he hates Ray Romano). Apatow is saying, “Hey, look who I got to appear in this.”
It’s a shame that he doesn’t collaborate with people like Feig on his projects anymore because, when you take away the heart, all you’re left with is a wry, sardonic jumbled mess. Lucky for Funny People, a couple of the actors elevate the material and make the movie much more entertaining than it deserves to be.