Posted on 27 July 2009.
“The closest I ever came to dying was when I masturbated with a 104-degree temperature.” That’s one of my favorite jokes from Larry David when he returned to stand-up comedy for the HBO Special that later became the pilot for “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I think that joke works on two separate planes for this review. First, it’s a stand-up comedy joke and the entire world contained in Funny People revolves around stand-up. Secondly, David is talking about being on the edge of death. Staring it in the eye. The main character in Funny People faces a similar quandary, although his situation is far less humorous.
George Simmons is a comedic movie star not unlike Adam Sandler. His ascent to stardom bears a strong resemblance to the plight of other comic film leading men. He began on stage telling jokes to rooms full of drunks in comedy clubs. His fame and persona took off and he moved on to such silly heights as headlining films about a merman and Re-Do, about a man who goes back to being a baby (a literal man-head on baby body) to remind himself of how to live. George’s string of hits ends when he is diagnosed with a type of leukemia, leaving his life as lived and decides to revert to a time when he was happiest and go back to performing stand-up comedy. He takes a young comedian, Ira Wright, under his wing as a last gesture of his time on Earth.
Ira isn’t the funniest of people. Not yet, at least. He’s a nubile talent stuck working behind a deli counter at a local grocery store, begging his co-workers to come to his shows, even having to offer to pay their cover charge. Fortunately, Ira has some support or rather constant motivation surrounding him at home. He lives with two buddies who are both firmly rooted in the comedy career path. Leo is another disciple of stand-up, trying to build through that. He’s had some more success that Ira, but still performs at the same venues. Their roommate and landlord, Mark, is the most successful, as he stars on an NBC sitcom called, “Yo, Teach,” resembling something along the lines of “Saved By the Bell.” He’s known to casually leave his $25,000 per week paychecks on Ira’s pillow. All of this only fuels Ira’s excitement toward George’s offer to be his assistant, as well as write jokes for him.
Ira is the only person George lets in on the secret of his disease. Ira, in turn naturally tells his closest comrades, but luckily it never reaches beyond that. Faced with the pressure, Ira eventually convinces George to let a few select others in on the news. George uses his illness to make amends with Laura, the girl that got away. They were to be married until his immaturity and lifestyle led to him cheating on her. She is now married with two children, albeit not the happiest. After bouts of suffering, George finds himself in the 8% of people who survive his condition and steps away from the porch in front of death’s door. Given a second lease on life, George has a chance to right his wrongs with Larua and share with Ira the path to success.
"If this was a lesser film, you'd just challenge George to a rugby match."
Judd Apatow’s name has been permanently fixated with cinematic comedy over the past few years, though this is only the third film he’s directed, after The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. It’s more of his producing duties that makes his name a mainstay in our filmgoing subconscious. That, and his band of talent he’s helped blossom into becoming their own headliners, thus spreading the Apatow brand, even when he isn’t directly involved. It’s similar to the Bill Walsh coaching tree that still survives in today’s NFL. What Apatow is a master of is blending what can be considered crass and vulgar humor with a story that contains a bit of sweetness, realism and heart. Sure he’s produced a story of man-children with Step Brothers and wacky sports comedy in Talladega Nights, but that’s not how he writes. He separates himself from the pack and elevates the genre by doing so. In Funny People, he blends comedy and drama seamlessly. It’s not a jarring transition from laughs to tears and the two dueling themes, death and comedy, work together like strawberries and chocolate as opposed to oil and water. This is a very funny film, as you would hope for, set in the world of comedy, but it may well induce some salty discharge at the same time.
I’ve never been a fan of Adam Sandler. In fact, I’ve been more of an anti-fan. It’s the whiny voice that’s driven me crazy through the years. Only in Punch-Drunk Love did I respect him for a bit, but that goodwill was quickly squandered. I’m pleased to say this is the best performance of his career. The whiny voice pops up now and then, but only as a character his character is playing. You get the feeling he’s baring his soul in this film as if it were a documentary reflection on his own life, since it so closely adheres to his real-life rise to fame. Acting accolades also belong to Seth Rogen. He plays a character who’s very grounded and identifiable. It’s a performance like no other we’ve seen from him. Over the past few movies of his, he has become quite stale. The shtick that worked so well for him before and rocketed him into our collective minds had worn thin. I believe this is a turning point for him, or at least should be. He can build on this next step of his career and hopefully continue to evolve as an actor.
There were some hampering and nagging points to be had, mainly with Sandler’s character arc. George isn’t the nicest of guys. Even when he recovers, he doesn’t undergo much of an arc and makes it harder to sympathize with him, even at the end. Ira is far more indefinable and the two characters never even really meet in the middle. The lack of bromance between the two is at least partly made up for by the interplay between Ira, Mark and Leo. Jason Schwartzman brings his usual suave egotism he’s been perfecting since Rushmore to Mark. Jonah Hill as Leo is more subdued then he’s been in the past, but his climbing off the ledge didn’t hinder his ability to invoke laughter.
Death is not a particularly funny subject, so I find it brave of Apatow to base his film around the subject. He succeeded in blurring the lines between comedy and drama and in turn made more than just a funny film, but a well-balanced movie worthy of following in Knocked Up‘s large footsteps. There’s a line in the film, which for obvious reason led to the title, which George uses to belittle Ira. “Usually, comedy is reserved for funny people.” Thank goodness for all of us, Judd Apatow is one of them.