For the simpleton, comedies can be roughly divided into four general combinations, comprised of the adjectives pointed, pointless, funny, and unfunny. There are the pointed and funny, à la “Groundhog Day,” which are generally the most effective; then there are the pointless but funny, à la “Airplane!”, and these are alright too, so long as they acknowledge their omission. On the other hand, to those behind the pointed but unfunny I say seek a different genre; to those behind the pointless and unfunny I say seek a different career.
Quite obviously, “Funny People” was designed as a funny and pointed movie; one of the clues for the former is that it features comedians, and to the latter, is that it’s about comedians. Indeed, the film works best when it sticks to its design. When it occasionally gets distracted and veers into pointless territory for the sole goal of being funny, or when it carelessly overindulges in pointed territory, is when it becomes only sporadically worthwhile.
Judd Apatow’s third and most ambitious, moralistic, thematically challenging film to date (as director) consists of two segments, classifiable as “the Prognosis,” the enjoyable one, and “the Remission”, the tedious one.
In the Prognosis, we are introduced to renowned comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler) who is diagnosed with a type of leukemia in a late stage, his own “near-death experience” that forces him to reconsider his lifestyle. In the process he meets Ira Wright – deli worker by day, novice stand-up comedian by night – whom Simmons hires unexpectedly as a personal assistant and joke writer. Wright, whose real surname is Weiner (in a joke that is milked to no avail) slowly distances himself from his roommate-friends Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman) and forms a close bond with Simmons, helping the comedian to keep a low profile and find closure with his career.
In the Remission, Simmons learns from his Dr. Lars (whose Scandinavian heritage is the subject of many jokes worthy of the trailer) that there is no longer any trace of the disease in his blood, whereupon he decides to reunite, amidst protest from Ira, with his former love interest Laura (Leslie Mann), happily married for a dozen years to an Australian, Clarke (Eric Bana).
As hinted, this much-criticized segment is indeed shaky and cannot fully decide what to do with the characters, needlessly toggling them and their motivation back and forth. Per se, gripes about length and pace are generally subjective and not valid criticisms, but the occasional imbalance of either can prove detrimental to a film, which is what happens in the burdensome Remission.
The ensemble, consisting of Apatow regulars Rogan, Hill and his wife Mann, is complemented by the additions of Sandler, Bana and Schwartzman. This interesting cast does a decent job with its personae, although there is an inevitable sense of flippancy and the “playing yourself” syndrome native to many Apatow productions. Sandler does a particularly good job with a character whose career largely mirrors his own, and what is probably his most accomplished role since 2002′s “Punch Drunk Love” is only slightly hindered by his usual annoying vocal shtick that requires some sort of restraint.
Vulgar as it is, the coarseness of “Funny People” is surprisingly subdued, but this assessment may be slanted by the severe desensitization brought on by “Brüno.” Vulgarity is dangerous and easy to overuse: it can act as an emphasis to make good jokes more plangent, or it can be the anvil that makes bad jokes oppressively bad. In memory, most jokes here worked well, and character interactions were funnier than their fictionalized stand-up performances.
As a helmer, Apatow is better with actors than with the camera, and as a writer better with dialogue than imagery, resulting in a visually and technically standard picture, notwithstanding the presence of Janusz Kaminski, brilliant cinematographer and longtime collaborator of Steven Spielberg. The nicely framed shots fail to create a distinctive look that is admittedly not as necessary in a picture of this sort.
“Funny People” tries to reach much farther than any of Apatow’s other involvements, including his two other directorial efforts “Knocked Up” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” and the change in focus is already palpable in their respective titles. Third time’s not necessarily the charm in this case, however, as this steady transformation in tone, theme and gravitas brings along both vice and virtue. With these changes the narrative becomes bulkier and more difficult to handle, and there is not a complete harmony between the segments, and between the plot and subplots, and most crushingly – between the characters. Therefore, as an intended character study of “funny people” that sometimes loses control of its characters, partly to their usual male anatomy shtick when the burden of a serious production becomes too heavy, it is only marginally successful.
The seeking of new depths on Apatow’s part is commendable; it’s just that time is required for adaptation. There is no doubt that this comedic guru can learn from his shortfalls and continue creating comedies, a difficult genre to get right, that are even more pointed and funny than this one.