Great comedy often springs from a bottomless well of anger and hostility. When a comic bounds backstage after a triumphant set, he never says, "I loved that audience!" He says, "I killed!"
When he has a terrible set, he dies. He bombed. No other entertainment form is so riddled with violent terminology.
The characters in "Funny People" are openly hostile, even when they express friendship and concern for one another or when they're just meeting someone. Their humor is their defense mechanism, and they rarely, rarely lower that shield. Thank God they have an outlet for all that anger, or they'd be arming themselves and reciting lines from "Taxi Driver" while staring into a mirror.
"Funny People" is a seriously funny movie starring Adam Sandler as Adam Sandler-esque comic-turned-movie star who might be dying. Not onstage----in life. The Judd Apatow comedic factory has produced a seemingly endless stream of hit films in recent years, but this is just the third film directed by Apatow, following "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." Like Apatow's previous efforts, this is a rambling, raunchy, winning and oft-times hilarious film. It's also a much more sophisticated and layered story, with heavy brushtrokes of pathos and tears. And it takes a hard right turn about two-thirds of the way through that doesn't really work and nearly derails a potentially great comedy. (More on that in a moment.)
The film opens with footage Apatow shot of Sandler some 20 years ago when they were struggling young hopefuls. Sandler's making a prank phone call that's funny only because he finds it so funny. Cut to 20 years later, and Sandler's George is a huge star, thanks to a string of comedies that sound an awful lot like the worst Adam Sandler movies imaginable. In one comedy, he's a Merman--half man, half fish. In another, his adult head sits atop a baby's body.
George lives in a ridiculous mansion. Everywhere he goes, young women throw themselves at him while young men hurry to capture his image on cell phone cameras. He's living the dream----but he's got no one to share the dream with. In fact, he's so isolated from any real human contact that when he's told he has a rare, potentially fatal blood disease, the only person with whom he shares this news is his recently hired assistant, an aspiring comic named Ira, played by Seth Rogen (who seems to be in every other movie these days).
The heart of the story is the dynamic between George and Ira, as George tries to become a better man before time runs out, and Ira tries to become a genuine friend to George while learning to write and tell jokes at the foot of a master. If this film starred Robin Williams and was directed by someone with a duller comedic wit, it could have been a treacly goo-fest of cheap sentimentality. Apatow isn't above leaning on Warren Zevon's "Keep Me In Your Heart" or giving us a medley of George getting sicker and sicker while Ira tends to him-----but he also peppers the story with dick joke after dick joke after dick joke, and some hilarious moments courtesy of Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman as Ira's fellow comic roommates; newcomer Aubrey Plaza; as a hot-geek-girl comic and RZA as Ira's coworker. Hell, even James Taylor gets in a couple of zingers.
You heard me, James Taylor. James F------- "Fire and Rain" Taylor.
For the first 90 minutes, as George comes to terms with his illness while bonding with Ira and returning to his stand-up roots, I'm thinking: this might be best movie of the year, depending on how Apatow resolves George's illness. But this film runs 150 minutes---that's just three minutes shy of the original theatrical running time of "Apocalypse Now," for crying out loud--so we've got another hour to go, and nearly all of that hour is devoted to a road trip to Marin County, where George's the-one-that-got-away ex-girlfriend lives with her husband and two children.
Apatow's wife Leslie Mann plays Laura, who still loves George and is once again drawn to him now that he could be dead soon, or at least more emotionally available than he was back in the day. Her daughters (played by Apatow's and Mann's girls) are smart and funny and adorable. But her hunky Australian husband (Eric Bana in a terrific performance) is more than a bit of a wanker who is on the road most of the time, giving George the opportunity to swoop in for a visit that turns into a dinner that turns into an overnight stay that turns into an extended version of playing house, much to the concern of tag-along Ira. (Not to mention the two girls, who suddenly have this goofy guy from their favorite movies acting like their stepfather.)
The family melodrama slams the brakes on much of the comedy, as the husband returns home unexpectedly and is soon insulting his wife, Ira and George engage in bitter verbal fisticuffs, Laura whines about her aborted career and George falls back into his self-centered ways. Mann gamely tries to make Laura someone we care about and Bana displays a deft comedic touch, but I wanted to yank George and Ira out of there and get them back to Los Angeles, where all the interesting/crazy/funny characters in their lives reside.
After all the sidebars and detours, "Funny People" ends with a couple of conventional but satisfying scenes, and we're glad to have spent time----if a little too much time---with George and Ira and all their comedy friends. Sandler gives one of his best performances as a talented narcissist who knows full well he sold out so long ago it might be impossible to achieve any kind of career or personal redemption, and the young cast is uniformly sharp and witty. We're also treated to self-effacing cameos from Sarah Silverman, Paul Reiser, Ray Romano and yes, Eminem. Apatow has written a rich, touching, clever, ribald, sprawling comedy----and it appears as if he decided to film every scene in the script, pacing and flow be damned. I still think it would have been a better film with a running time of two hours, but "Funny People," the director's cut, is one of my favorite movies so far this year.