Fine performances redeem uneven “Funny People”

Funny_People

Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen make a comedy dream team in "Funny People."

Given the fact that Judd Apatow created “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” two of the frankest and funniest romantic comedies to come along in years, it’s not surprising he felt a yen to change things up in “Funny People.” After all, he’s been working this real-guys-cry-and-make-penis-jokes schtick since “Undeclared.” He’s entitled to go all “Elizabethtown” every now and again, right?

Maybe. Maybe Apatow has earned that right, but that doesn’t mean his fans aren’t more than a little disappointed to see him use it to make something as blatantly uneven as “Funny People.”  Here is a movie that is — much like Crowe’s “Elizabethtown” — two movies in one: a dark, bittersweet examination of regret, fame and isolation and a lame-brained comedy. One’s startlingly thoughtful, and the other feels a lot like a Sarah Palin-styled bailout. Guess which movie’s worth paying $7.50 to see.

Still, it’s hard to dismiss “Funny People” as a failure mostly because the first half is so strong and because the performances — all funny, right down to the non-key players — make the whole movie so enjoyable. And what a difference a few years has made for Adam Sandler, who banishes all memory of the crap that made him famous (like “Little Nicky”) with his astonishing turn as terminally ill stand-up comedian George Simmons. Time has worn down Sandler’s features, made his face more wistful and less impish. It’s the face of a real actor, and Sandler, somewhat miraculously, has become one.

This much is evident throughout “Funny People,” with Sandler digging deep to show us every layer of George Simmons. Sequestered in a giant California palace, the comedian spends most of his free time bedding groupies who only want sex so they’ll “have a story to tell their friends.” (Watch Sandler’s priceless delivery of this truth.) The discovery that he has leukemia prompts him to re-enter the stand-up world, and so he hires Ira  Wright (a career-best Seth Rogen), a floundering comedian, to write him new material.

Here is where the meat of “Funny People” exists, in these scenes where Simmons forms a strange bond with Ira, telling him about his diagnosis and trying, earnestly if cautiously, to make a real friend before he dies. Yet there is not one ounce of sap to be found in any of these moments, and credit must go to Apatow’s script and Sandler and Rogen’s talent. These two rip on each other without mercy, and their barbs are all the more powerful because it’s clear they disguise anguish. Ira’s naive and doesn’t know how to deal with the mess his one-time idol has made of his life. The more bitter George is haunted by regrets, not least of which was cheating on his ex-fiancee Laura (Leslie Mann, an actress of deceptive subtlety). In a dumber movie George and Ira might teach each other life lessons; in “Funny People,” neither one has much wisdom to offer. How refreshing that is.

Sadly, this vastly superior movie ends around the 75-minute mark and another begins, one I’m tempted not to mention at all because it’s kind of a sellout. But the second half contains some very impressive acting and a few points of redemption. George drags Ira on a road trip to find Laura. There’s some broad physical comedy in this, a few zingers (my favorite throwaway: Rogen’s “You can’t have two girls in China”) and some very fine chemistry shared by Mann and Sandler. Oh, and Eric Bana brings on the funny as Laura’s chatty Aussie husband. (Yes, the pre-Ed Norton “Hulk” guy has jokes.) But there’s no nuance in this act, and the finale is too pat, too neat.

But no more of this movie; it does not merit further discussion. What does is the acting, which is aces all around. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman are hysterical (in very different ways) as Ira’s quarreling roommates. (Schwartzman also did the music for the movie.) People tend to say that Mann gets cast in these kinds of movies because she’s Apatow’s wife. That’s but a half-truth because Mann’s an actress who projects warmth, humor and vulnerability in every scene. And, of course, there’s Rogen and Sandler, never better. They make a great comedic team, but their individual performances are remarkably layered and distinctive in a movie that it is only marginally so.

Grade: B-

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6 Responses

  1. I’ve been hearing that the movie starts to lose it’s shine towards the end but everyone still ranks the humour and acting really high. I get the impression that such fine acting can overpower what may be a slightly underwhelming ending.

    I’m still very interested in seeing this one as it seems that every character in the movie hits the right comedic notes instead of just having one or two standouts.

  2. Even though I didn’t enjoy the second half, this is still a very worthwhile movie because of the acting. Apatow has a knack for making sure every character, even the minor ones, stands out. Everybody is funny, from Sandler right down to Torsten Voges, who is great as the Swedish doctor (I think he’s Swedish) that tells George he’s dying. In fact, Voges’ part might be one of my favorite in the movie. He only gets 5 minutes of screen time, but he makes an impression. I don’t think it’s in Apatow’s DNA to create a character who doesn’t.

    M. Carter

  3. I might check this one out on DVD mostly because of Bana’s involvement. I’ve seen clips on YouTube of his stand-up comic days and this guy is hilarious! Sandler is hit and miss for me, but he seems pretty good in this one.

    • I’m firmly seated on the Eric Bana train. Apparently he did an Australian show called “Eric” that was very funny, and I saw a few of those clips you mentioned. I hope more directors will let him use his comic talents. And believe you me, I was NOT an Adam Sandler. He struck me as way too smart to be doing dumb stuff like “Billy Madison.” But if he had to go through that to become the actor he is in “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Funny People,” OK then.

      M. Carter

  4. Nice reference to Crowe’s ‘Elizabethtown’ to set up your review of the movie. I too thought this film was the superior Apatow effort mainly because it tried to integrate a more adult storyline and make a different type of film this time. I thought the movie worked better when Sandler was sick and how he was struggling to make sense of things. The second half of the movie (aside from being too long in the tooth) seemed more like 40 Year Old Virgin in their attempts to take the movie in a lighter hearted direction for the finale. As far as the ending, yes, it was as you said “too neat” for tall the emotionally heavy plot that led up to it. In my opinion it wasn’t a happy ending, but left it as a “where do we go from here” stand point rather than “happily ever after”, so that sort of worked.

    http://greatct.wordpress.com/

  5. It’s funny in the first act, then it goes on to become too serious, but still very very funny. Check out my review here: http://dtmmr.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/funny-people-2009-2/ Nice Review!

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