Judd Apatow’s Funny People is not so much a comedy about funny people as it is an aggressive war against stereotypes. The two most prominently attacked: That comedians are funny in “real” life, all the time, 24/7; and that everybody who survives cancer has this miraculous, dramatic, It’s a Wonderful Life/A Christmas Carol turnaround, wherein the misanthropic hero’s heart grows three sizes, the Christmas bird is put on the table, and he’s going to live a better life, dammit.
George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is not a good person. You could, if you wanted to, draw a comparison between him and C.F. Kane. Both live alone in their huge houses, interacting mainly with staff. Both have many acquaintances and business associates, but no friends. Both have gained an incredible amount of wealth, material and monetary. Both seem destined to die alone and misunderstood. Simmons, unlike Kane, is woken up from his long nightmare by a sudden revelation: He has cancer. Worse: It’s a cancer that only eight percent of people survive.
George is distraught, as are most people who are told that they have an eight percent chance of coming out of treatment alive. He decides to go back to stand-up comedy, an odd choice for a superstar comic with piles of movie offers on his kitchen counter, and winds up playing to silenced crowds at the Improv, who don’t get that his “How will you go on without me?” act isn’t really an act—he wants to know how America will go on without one of its icons. “Why me?” mixed with “You poor bastards.”
Meanwhile, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is an aspiring comedian who works at a grocery store and sleeps on his friend’s couch. His roommates, a more successful comic (Jonah Hill), and the star of an awful, teen-orientated sitcom (Jason Schwartzman), and his co-worker at the deli (RZA) all point out his fatal flaw: He isn’t funny. It’s sad, and perhaps lucky, that he has to go on after George, who just bombed. When his original material doesn’t go over so well, he starts ragging on George, who is looking on in the back sullenly.
George hires Ira to write jokes for him and eventually become his assistant. For Ira, it’s a dream job. He gets to open for George, hang out in a massive house, and get paid to write material for stand-up comedy. For George, it’s a necessity. Ira is the first person in some time he has let into his life, the first person to realize how crushing his lonely existence is, and the first person to find out that he has cancer.
From there, the movie changes gears. It becomes less about funny people and more about the process of finding oneself. George has a lot of soul-searching to do, and, unlike 99% of movie characters who go through his situation, he isn’t very good at it. Sure, things seem to be moving along while he’s sick, but what’s to stop George Simmons from going back to being a jerk when he’s healthy?
Nothing, which is why he becomes a celebrimonster as soon as the doctor (Torsten Voges) tells him to go out and make another movie. Rather than do that, George wants to pursue Laura (Leslie Mann), the woman he would have married had not he cheated on her. The problem with that plan of action is that Laura is married to Clark (Eric Bana) and has two kids. He has a choice: Make himself happy and destroy a family, or look for happiness elsewhere.
If that’s what you expected to see going in, more power to you. You were clearly paying attention during Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshal, or any of Judd Apatow’s TV shows. If you were expecting an Adam McKay-like parade of dick, fart, and masturbation jokes with nothing else, you might walk out a little nonplussed. “Funny People?” you might ask. “Was I supposed to laugh when Sarah Silverman made her face look like a vagina, or was Judd just fucking with me?”
Well no, probably not. The people making the trailers are likely to blame, not that the Comedy Central stand-up special helped any. Any time two comedians are in the same room in this movie, there is some kind of awkwardness, an invisible competition running between the two, and an odd, mutual loathing. The jokes they crack offstage are often not funny, they don’t look happy shaking hands and taking pictures with people they don’t know, and, you may be shocked, the big guys hire open mic night people to write jokes for them. Only Eminem seems to get it, but if he believes what he’s saying, every new release is the highest form of cowardice. It’s all an act, even when it isn’t.
I—like most people, I imagine—liked the first half of Funny People more than the second. While I won’t go out on a limb and call Apatow indulgent for putting his wife and kids front and center, I do wonder at why two radically different movies were smashed together, pushing an extremely likable Seth Rogen so far into the background that, at one point, he is told to go watch a movie with the kids…which he does without protest.
Stand-up comedy is a heavily veiled world that few ever get a peek at, and Apatow went with a brilliant set-up to give the audience a chance to see where our favorite stand-ups got their start. It’s unique. It’s fresh. Marital drama, no matter how well it’s executed, seems a bit dull by comparison. The tacked-on ending helps neither half of the movie.
That doesn’t mean that Funny People isn’t a film without a lot to say. If anything, it has too much to say and spends too much time finding the words. While it might go unappreciated now because August is the month usually dedicated to Sandler fare like You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, this is a challenging, sometimes brilliant movie waiting to be picked up and appreciated by people who want something beyond the dick and fart jokes. This is no minor entry in Apatow’s canon.
Funny People. Directed by Judd Apatow. With Adam Sandler (George Simmons), Seth Rogen (Ira Wright), Leslie Mann (Laura), Eric Bana (Clarke), Jonah Hill (Leo), Jason Schwartzman (Mark), Aubrey Plaza (Daisy), RZA (Chuck), and Aziz Ansari (Randy). Released July 31, 2009, by Universal Pictures.