Stand and deliver
The combination of writer-director Judd Apatow and his old roommate Adam Sandler proves to be a good one with the ambitious Funny People. Apatow’s third film as director is his most adventurous, giving old friend Sandler a chance to truly act as opposed to the unabashed mugging of his recent films. It’s Sandler’s best acting since Punch-Drunk Love, and a more serious mode for Apatow, who proves he can be as emotionally powerful as he is funny.
Sandler plays George Simmons, a standup comedian turned film actor who has left the clubs behind for movies where he plays a baby with an adult head, or a merman. He’s achieved great fame with a big house and lots of money, but he’s alone. He’s not really whining about it … he’s just alone, and that’s the way things worked out.
A visit to the doctor early in the film proves ugly, and George finds out he doesn’t have long to live. In a depressed state, he decides to try standup again, where he just bums everybody out. He spies a young comic named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) doing a set after him and promptly offers him a job as his joke writer. Sure, the hiring seems absolutely ridiculous in its quickness, but it’s a movie, the performers are doing well, and we go with it.
George’s condition eventually leads him to contact friends, past and present, and make amends. Looming largest in his past is Laura (Leslie Mann), “the one who got away.” When Laura comes to see George, the scene generates genuine emotional fireworks. Apatow proves that he’s very capable of handling the heavy stuff, and this moment between Sandler and Mann is tear-worthy rather than tear-jerking.
But is Funny People funny? It’s actually very funny.
Remember that movie Punchline, where Tom Hanks and Sally Field did standup and it felt forced, staged and shitty? When the likes of Sandler and Rogen take to the stage to do material, they come off as guys who could go on tour right now. This is especially true of Rogen, who is very at home with a microphone in his hand. The same goes for Jonah Hill, who has a supporting role as one of Ira’s roommates. I’d pay good money to see this trio do a night of standup.
The movie is lengthy, but it never feels long. When George and Ira journey to Laura’s house, where things get a little out of hand, the tone of the film changes to a degree where it feels like another movie. Fortunately, it feels like another movie that is still solid, good filmmaking. Apatow takes a lot of risks, and they pay off.
The movie, wisely, never tries to force us to feel sorry for George’s plight. Apatow, Sandler and Rogen show that they can handle the emotional bits without getting sappy. Sandler’s character still tells jokes when he’s sick. They are dark, morbid jokes, but they are jokes all the same.
Rogen has made public comments about how he doesn’t want to make the move to heavy drama from comedy. After seeing his work here, I have no doubt that he could handle purely “serious” acting roles. His Ira has many layers, some of them very funny, and others movingly sensitive. It actually qualifies as one of the year’s best performances so far.
Sandler gets his career back on track with this one, a role where he even gets to make fun of himself and his career a little bit. He’s allowed to show his goofy side when his garbage movies are screened, but he’s a real guy for most of the movie. Mann, Apatow’s wife, is outstanding as usual. Eric Bana and Jason Schwartzman do fine work in supporting roles.
It will be interesting to see how Apatow follows this up. Sandler is in production on his next Dennis Dugan film, the guy who directed I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, so the quality stuff will probably get put on hold again.