By Betsy Sharkey
July 31, 2009
An adult Apatow would be a significant development since so much recent and future comedy rests under the shade of his very big umbrella -- the mostly super "Superbad," the superbad "Year One" and the somewhat bad "Pineapple Express" among them.
But growing up is not easy and it's clear that the filmmaker remains very conflicted when it comes to adulthood. It's as if he can't quite shed the clown suit for the Armani, and he's definitely not ready to let go of the big red nose, or in Apatow's case, a very specific part of the male anatomy that the film spends far too many of its 2 hours and 26 minutes -- and no, that's not a joke -- on.
The funny thing about "Funny People" is that it is neither funny nor sad, this despite headlining funny guys Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, featuring cameos and supporting work from roughly 20 other card carrying comedians, and a plot line that centers on a near-death experience.
When that many certifiably funny people working together can't make a funny movie, that's a tragedy. So I guess "Funny People" is sad after all, just not for the right reasons.
Sandler stars as George Simmons, a wildly successful comic jerk turned movie star whose wonderful world of narcissistic excess is rocked by the news that he actually does have everything, including a fatal disease. Rogen costars as Ira Wright, the young comic wannabe whose material usually bombs. Still George takes him on as an assistant/forced friend, because, you know, it's lonely at the top.
So what you essentially have is two guys who are dying -- one literally, one figuratively -- who team up to start figuring out the meaning of life. It could have been rich.
That certainly was the plan.
As the story unfolds, Sandler's George is living large -- nameless beautiful girls floating through his designer digs and more money that he can possibly spend. He is not a nice guy. A trip to the doctor and that really deadly diagnosis theoretically change all that, sending George on a journey of self-discovery that takes him back home, which in his case is the gritty comedy club circuit.
It is there that his life intersects with young Ira, who works in a deli by day and tries to hone his comedy routine by night. It's mostly about Ira's manhood and mostly unfunny. Note to studio: Unless it's genius, never let them show the sausage getting made.
The soon to be BFFs are surrounded by ancillary characters played primarily by FOJs (Friends of Judd). The casting gives the film a comedy class-reunion sensibility, which makes everything a lot more fun for them than us. Ira has obnoxious roommates who are also in the biz, played by Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman. George lives alone. The movie skips the chapter that explains why we're supposed to care about any of them.
Love interests will emerge, because in yet another truism the filmmaker is toying with, dying is one thing, but to die unloved really, and I use the technical term here, sucks. For George, Apatow's real-life wife, Leslie Mann, is Laura, the one who got away.
Laura's married to Eric Bana's philandering Clarke with the Apatows' adorable kids playing her kids. Now that George is dying, she's wondering if she made the right choice to leave him. And you were worried "Funny People" would succumb to clichés.
Love for Ira comes in the form of the cute girl who lives across the street, a very promising Aubrey Plaza, whose spot-on deadpan feels like what would happen if Steven Wright were re-imagined as a twentysomething chick.
The world of "Funny People" is filled with cinematic possibility. Between textured characters who pull out their pathos and pain for our amusement and the firing squad nature of the comedy club crowd who are just as happy to loathe you as love you, it's ripe for a Hollywood treatment.
Other filmmakers have taken their shot over the years, "Punchline" and "The King of Comedy" come to mind, yet no one has gotten it quite right.
Apatow, Hollywood's current go-to funny guy with many of his early years spent in the stand-up trenches, seemed a fine prospect to pull it off. And it's clear from the pedigree of the crew the studio surrounded him with, led by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who took home Oscars for "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," that Apatow set out to do something important, something substantial.
But any sort of new insight into comedy's darker themes, to say nothing of life's, eludes "Funny People." Instead Sandler and Rogen and the rest are left to wander aimlessly, with tedious comedy gigs, an even more tedious faux sitcom and relatively vapid relationships masquerading as a plot.
The many drop-in bits by the likes of Ray Romano, Paul Reiser, Sarah Silverman, Andy Dick and the others are completely squandered. To say nothing of the scenes in which comedy legends drop by to lament George's fate, which feels like nothing more than an indulgent, kiss-the-king's-ring meta moment for Apatow. Non-comic rapper Eminem turns in the best cameo of the bunch.
There is, of course, an even bigger question hovering around the film: Can Apatow grow into a filmmaker who contributes something more to cinema than cheap laughs and fast cash?
From the evidence here, I'm not sure. Every time he moves toward meaning in "Funny People," he gets cold feet and his fallback position is a whole lot of crass.
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