A film review by Craig J. Koban August 6, 2009
2009, R, 146 mins.
2009, R, 146 mins.
George: Adam Sandler / Ira: Seth Rogen / Laura: Leslie
Mann / Leo: Jonah Hill / Clarke: Eric Bana / Mark: Jason
Judd Apatow’s FUNNY PEOPLE is one of the more sophisticated and ambitious dramedies of the last few years. Unfortunately, it is also the most awkwardly constructed and misshapen.
In short: it's a mess.
is no doubt that this a passion project for the critically lauded
writer/director/producer and there is ample evidence to easily suggest that FUNNY PEOPLE is
a personal effort. The film traverses along an
always difficult tonal trajectory – comedic
raunch mixed with heartfelt sentiment and somber, angst-ridden melodrama
– and, for the most part, it’s a moderate success, to be sure. However, after leaving the theatre my overriding summation of
the film is that it’s ultimately a dissatisfying and self-indulgent
effort for a filmmaker that, to his credit, has radically altered the landscape of R-rated
comedies over the last few years. Perhaps
most exasperating about the whole enterprise is that it’s nearly undone by an
unnecessary running time of two and
half hours, which can only be attributed to (a) Apatow’s growing ego with his
newfound directorial clout or (b) how his fanaticism for the project has
countermanded any semblance of narrative flow and editorial discipline.
has very little to apologize for; his last two efforts - 2005’s
filthy-minded, but tender and sweet, THE
40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and the even more polished, funny, and
introspective KNOCKED UP from 2007 –
highlighted how gifted he is at fusing raw, scatological shenanigans
with a keen understanding and compassion for his characters.
Not only were those two films riotously funny (and very deserving of
their R-ratings), but they surprised me for how smart and observant
there were in terms of dealing with their characters and their respective dilemmas
with a sincerity and dignity. In
a way, Apatow both subverted and transcended the hard-R sex and
rom-coms with both of these features: They had an undeniable charm for how
much heart he invested in them. Apatow
is a real master of bait and switch, promising us something most lay
audiences will readily expect (and to some degrees, receive), but as weird
and offbeat as the films were with their premises, he never lost sight on
grounding the characters in a believable manner: Lesser comedy directors never make
you care as much about their characters like Apatow does.
PEOPLE, in many respects, once again shows him dealing with similar
character archetypes that he has excelled at before: men who are both at
ease around their hetero-liftemates, but uneasy when it comes to living
their lives in meaningful and productive ways.
On top of this Apatow adds another new thematic dimension: how fame
and fortune affects a person’s life choices and how these choices, in
turn, have calamitous effects on other people.
While ruminating on celebrity culture FUNNY PEOPLE simultaneously
explores the darker and more dreary underbelly of mortality and how fear of
impending death acts as a catalyst for personal growth and change.
The fact that Apatow stirs all of these divergent ingredients into
his mixing bowl is noteworthy enough: Few filmmakers – whether in the
comedic or dramatic realm – would be daring enough to survey such
fascinating and complex material while fusing it with the type of lewd and
crude comic sensibilities that people also have come to expect in most adult
real problem is that all of these elements never gel together with any
reasonable cohesion and symmetry. Consider
the film’s gargantuan length: FUNNY PEOPLE feels more like a
self-absorbed vanity project for Apatow than a thoroughly involving and
funny dissection of its themes. The
film is absolutely proof positive as to the necessity and importance of
editing for a film to succeed. There
are many scattered scenes that work marvelously throughout FUNNY PEOPLE
that were intermittently moving and hilarious, but the film lacks a
definitive connective tissue. Moreoften
than not, I felt like Apatow was so enthusiastic for the material that he could not bring himself to
trim off its rough edges...or to stop and say “when.”
The film in its present state has the aura of a rough and clumsy work
print in need of some finesse; this is not final cut material.
PEOPLE concerns a very famous and loved comedian named George Simmons
(Adam Sandler), whose fictitious life has more than a fleeting resemblance
to the actor that plays him. He
was once a struggling and somewhat insecure stand-up comedian that got a
big break and then went on to a very lucrative film career starring in - as
far as the clips for the faux films within the film show - comedies that are
awful (one film is called MER-MAN which shows George as a…well…half
man, half fish, and another wretched one shows his head superimposed
baby’s body: these films certainly seem eerily autobiographical to Sandler’s
own career resume of dreadful comic turds). Alas, despite the relative lack of worth of his film roles,
George has become a filthy rich celebrity, but his fame has led to
estrangement from most of his friends and past loves, not to mention that
he has become increasing introverted
FUNNY PEOPLE’S shockingly spoilerish trailer has dubiously
George discovers that he has a rare blood disorder that will apparently
take his life. He is, of
course, shocked by this fatal news, but seems unsure how to process and
deal with it. He tries to
talk to Laura (Leslie Mann), a former love of his life that he ruined via
infidelity, but she wants nothing to do with him.
His parents and siblings are also barely on speaking terms with
George anymore: he essentially has no one in his empty existence.
At this downtrodden point in his life George has a fateful meeting
with a young, starving comedian named Ira (a remarkably slimmed down Seth
Rogen) that has worshipped George since the beginning of his career. During one night of stand-up George takes in Ira’s act and
seems moderately impressed with what he sees: maybe he sees in Ira a
reflection of his past, or perhaps George’s pure loneliness and
isolation from the outside world draws him to Ira.
No matter, because George decides to hire him as his new
assistant/joke writer and part of the new job also involves him being the
only person to know about his condition.
of course, jumps at the chance to work for his idol, but the more he works
under George – both writing new material for him as well as performing
menial tasks – the more he soon discovers the darker side to his
stand-up hero: George, even while facing death, is a selfish,
self-centered, and narcissistic a-hole that treats most people around him
like dirt. Things do change
for George (which, once again, that pesky trailer has already spoiled for
us) that George seems to be going into a state of remission from his
illness, which gives him a new lease on life.
His newfound health gives him the motivation to win back the woman
of his dreams in Laura, and he coerces the naďve Ira to assist him in a
plan to win her affections back, which certainly is a difficult task
seeing as she has two kids and is married to a strong, handsome, and career-minded Ausie named Clarke (Eric Bana).
PEOPLE is undeniably strong in many areas.
For starters, the film’s level of emotional honesty with its
characters is refreshing: most of them speak and react to one another with
a scathing hostility at times, even when, deep down, there is mutual
affection. Secondly, Apatow
– who has known Sandler for years and struggled early on in his career
to make it as a stand-up comedian alongside him, but ultimately failed – does a
bravura job of encompassing that tightly wound up and feverously neurotic
world that comedians exist in. I
have always had an impression that stand-up acts are beyond confident in
their abilities, but FUNNY PEOPLE wisely points out that men and women in
this profession struggle daily with their lack of confidence.
That, and the film shows the how they use the all of their pent up
pains, sorrows, and personal wounds in an effort to make people laugh.
FUNNY PEOPLE intuitively understands this world through and
film is also remarkably funny at times and is ripe with many sidesplitting
one-liners (often perpetrated by George at Ira’s lack of experience:
“Does your act designed to make sure no girl will ever sleep with
you?”). The verbal jabs come fast
and furiously as the comedians within the comedy lash out on everything
from pop culture to male/female relationships to the inadequacies of
their...ahem...manhood (perhaps too many jokes involving the latter are in
the film for good measure). The film also has
many very hysterical cameos by famous funny men (by far, the most
hilarious, and odd, pair of cameos belongs to Eminem and Ray Romano, which
leads to the rapper nearly accosting the former sitcom star and ends with
Ira mischievously deadpanning, “I thought everyone loved you!?”
There is also a brilliantly macabre and funny scene involving
George and Ira mocking George’s doctor for how much of a striking resemblance
he has to a particular villain from the first DIE HARD film.
performances are also resoundingly stellar.
Sandler easily gives a career high performance that – as
films like PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and SPANGLISH
have demonstrated, albeit to intermittent effect – he is
often better when playing in roles rigidly against type and under the
Sandler’s George has a caged intensity and vindictiveness that is
not as playful as the actor's past comedic creations (he is not a nice,
nor likeable, man) but he also reveals subtle instances of a
self-pitying vulnerability (he knows that he has sold out
years ago, which certainly hits home for Sandler in more personal ways than one).
As a foil to the hotheaded and impulsive George we have Rogen’s
Ira, equally funny as Sandler in the film as well has effectively
modulating his tricky performance between hilarity and pathos.
We also have other Apatow regulars, like Jonah Hill as Ira’s
wise-talking roommate, who is accompanied by Jason Schwartzman as an actor that has made it
big on a indefensibly bad high school sitcom called “Yo, Teach”; both
generate huge laughs. Finally,
we have the two trickiest performances of the bunch in Leslie Mann and
Eric Bana, the former gives a gently and thanklessly empowered performance
as the “woman that got away” from George and Bana nearly steals
the show from everyone with his droll and energetic portrayal of Mann’s
somewhat clueless husband.
Yet, as much as I laughed uncontrollably throughout the film, found its themes complex and compelling, and genuinely favoured its performances, FUNNY PEOPLE is too long, too bloated, and too lumbering for its own good. By the time the film reaches the climatic showdown and love triangle between George, Laura, and Clarke, it has already hit the two hour mark with another 30 minutes to go, which by that time feels punishingly and restlessly long already. Also, considering the film’s absorbent length, many other side-plots that once seemed poised for development are curiously abandoned (like Ira’s flirtatious love affair with another fellow stand-up comic, played with a nail-biting sarcasm by Aubrey Plaza, which seems like it could have easily been the victim of an editor’s trim). Ultimately, if one considers the story that Apatow was trying to tell, would any reasonable filmmaker conclude that a running time close to that of a LORD OF THE RUNGS film is required to dutifully tell it? Doubtful. FUNNY PEOPLE aggressively shows how a filmmaker’s fierce ambition and drive for a project can often cloud reason: a much leaner and tighter edit of the film would have made for a much more satisfying final product.
My heart is telling me to recommend FUNNY
PEOPLE on its many merrits, but my analytical
mind is telling me that I cannot.
There is no doubt that Apatow’s film is richly rewarding in terms
of tickling our collective funny bones while stirring us with its
absorbing characters, routinely strong performances, and intricate themes.
It is also frequently hliarious look at the
insider’s world of modern stand-up comedians in Los Angeles, not to
mention a recurrently moving rumination of life and death and how some
people may be incapable of changing for the better even when death is
knocking at their door. Unfortunately,
the sum of great parts of FUNNY PEOPLE struggles to create a harmonious whole. Apatow’s
ardour for this project thoroughly shows, but his discipline does not.
The film is a distorted and muddled effort that is not reflective
of his past masterful screen dramedies.
It's disappointingly a film of artistic hubris gone amok and unchecked.
My heart is telling me to recommend FUNNY PEOPLE on its many merrits, but my analytical mind is telling me that I cannot. There is no doubt that Apatow’s film is richly rewarding in terms of tickling our collective funny bones while stirring us with its absorbing characters, routinely strong performances, and intricate themes. It is also frequently hliarious look at the insider’s world of modern stand-up comedians in Los Angeles, not to mention a recurrently moving rumination of life and death and how some people may be incapable of changing for the better even when death is knocking at their door. Unfortunately, the sum of great parts of FUNNY PEOPLE struggles to create a harmonious whole. Apatow’s ardour for this project thoroughly shows, but his discipline does not. The film is a distorted and muddled effort that is not reflective of his past masterful screen dramedies. It's disappointingly a film of artistic hubris gone amok and unchecked.
FUNNY PEOPLE is a mess - a very funny, well acted, and ambitious mess - but a mess, no less.