Details: (M), In Cinemas 10 September 2009, United States, English
Synopsis: When seasoned comedian George Simmons learns of his terminal, inoperable health condition, his desire to form a genuine friendship cause him to take a relatively green performer under his wing as his opening act.
Apatow's latest offering is beyond a joke. In a good way.
Writer/director Judd Apatow might have set his latest film within L.A.’s stand-up comedy scene, and cast longtime pal and box office-friendly clown Adam Sandler in the lead, but he’s aiming at the heart strings rather than the funny bone in this, his third film in the director’s chair.
In Funny People he reunites with several of the actors that have helped guide his past efforts to global hit status. Seth Rogen (star of Apatow’s The 40 Year-old Virgin and Knocked Up) plays struggling comic Ira, an ambitious but not-entirely confident young man who wants to feel good for his roommates (a scene-stealing Jonah Hill and slimy Jason Schwartzman) when their careers take off, but who craves his own success more. His life changes when comedy superstar George Simmons (a caustic, corpulent Adam Sandler) contacts him after catching Ira’s stand-up act.
What Ira assumes will be a career-enhancing mentor/student relationship soon turns bittersweet when he learns George is dying, and that he wants Ira to help get his life in order before he passes.
Apatow builds the dynamics of the men’s friendship at a deliberate pace, focussing as much on Ira’s personal and professional stumbles (which aren’t very interesting) as he does on the terminally-ill George’s existential quandary. The first hour of the film is a jumble of story strands, languid moments of reflection and comedy-club visits, which set up the faux father-son emotional framework upon which the rest of film must hang, however precariously.
As is to be expected, Apatow and his cast nail the comedy moments with ease. Jokey responses and quick-witted asides draw laughs from even the most routine exchanges with the same effortless rhythm that made Knocked Up so enjoyable. But the dramatic scenes are unconvincing; whereas Knocked Up took the serious subject of unwanted pregnancy and handled it with forthright honesty and warm characterisations, Funny People keeps the rather unlikable George and the wimpy Ira at an emotional distance from the audience, never allowing us to bond with them the way they appear to be bonding with each other.
Apatow shakes up the dramatic arc at the film’s midway point; plot direction and character motivation veer off, jarringly, into new territory, to George’s ex-wife Laura (Apatow’s real-life wife, Leslie Mann) and her new husband, Clarke (an imposing but funny Eric Bana). In this sequence Funny People struggles to find an emotional foothold and the last hour of the film (which runs to a wildly over-indulgent 156 mins) is watchable but clumsy and rather inconsequential.
And yet, despite its failings as a drama, it is an undeniably likable film. Sandler gets the rare opportunity to underplay a role, preferring to sit back and let his younger castmates do all the comedic hardwork while he slyly and subtly (yes, Sandler can be subtle) peels back the layers of George’s hard exterior. It is some of his best work.
Seth Rogen, who has been trying audience patience lately with stinkers like Zac & Miri Make A Porno and Observe and Report, also plays against the sarcastic, smartmouth stereotype he has coasted on for a while. Ira is barely a man and undergoes considerable growth as George’s new friend. Apatow , the actor’s longtime friend and collaborator, does Rogen no favours by refocussing the film’s second half and largely reducing him to an onlooker.
Mann and Bana struggle with some unconvincing dialogue but have their own moments to shine. Supporters of the St Kilda Football Club will get a big kick out of Bana’s loving ode to his favourite team and the sight of the club’s flag in a big Hollywood movie (it’s a fun moment that may catch on with Aussie stars – Robin Hood in a Rabbitohs beanie, perhaps...?)
Most enjoyable are the parade of comedy star cameos that Apatow and Sandler have enlisted to reinforce the sense of camaraderie that exists in the stand-up trenches – Paul Reiser, Sarah Silverman, Carol Leifer, Andy Dick, Charles Fleischer (the voice of ‘Roger Rabbit’), Norm McDonald and George Wallace are just some of the L.A. comedy royalty that appear. Thanks to Apatow’s skill with comic-timing and criss-crossing dialogue, these scenes contain the film’s funniest moment - a blue-blast of rage that musician Eminem unleashes upon TV star Ray Romano (“I thought everybody loved you?!” says Ira).
It seems as though Judd Apatow was hoping to move into James L. Brooks territory with Funny People. Brook’s 1983 Best Picture-winner Terms Of Endearment is still the flag-bearer for the “you’ll-laugh-you’ll-cry” genre – a near-perfect melodrama, filled with eccentric personalities and complex relationships that hums to a wonderful script and Oscar-worthy performances. Apatow has a little growing up to do before he can claim Brooks’ crown, but Funny People is a step in the right direction.
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