The news of a new Judd Apatow film is always welcome. He has only directed three films, but between that and his producing credits he has created a track record for himself. There is something about the way he brings characters to life, either through his words, or through carefully choosing and involving himself in the scripts he produces. Each of his three films have been uproariously funny, heartfelt, and emotional, and utterly raunchy, not to mention his ability to draw out fine performances from his cast (including his own personal stable of actor friends). Funny People is no different. It feels distinctly like an Apatow creation, but there is something else to it — and yet trying to nail it down is like trying to hit a moving target.
Funny People is an interesting film. There is something about the way the film flows that makes it feel a bit different from either The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up. This one seems to be a bit more personal to Apatow and the people involved. You see, in addition to being about relationships and coming of age, it is also about dealing with the immediate reality of death and how brushes with it can change a person. Going even beyond that, this movie is something of an insider look at comedy as a profession, with looks at both ends of the spectrum.
The story attacks its topic from two perspectives. The primary thread follows George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a character whose life, in many ways, is not dissimilar to that of the man playing him. He is a superstar of the silver screen, a man who has worked his way up through the stand-up crowd to become a man beloved by the masses for his goofy movies. From there, the similarities begin to wane, but I would not be surprised to learn there is more truth to it than we may think.
Anyway, we learn right off that Simmons has a rare blood disease, a form of leukemia, with little hope for recovery. This news hits him like a ton of bricks. He goes back to the stand-up stage, but with considerably darker material. He is clearly having trouble processing the news and his efforts to do so lead him to Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an up and coming comedian who is starstruck when he first meets his idol. Simmons hires Wright to pen some jokes and perform assistant duties, which makes him the de facto confidant to Simmons' health issues.
The other side of the tale follows Ira and his struggles to make his way as a comedian while working in a deli. He is a timid, kind soul who has not truly found himself yet. He jokes about himself, he cannot talk to girls, and is a bit of a loser. However, George sees something in him and the two generate an odd friendship.
Funny People works on a couple of different levels. We watch Simmons take stock of his life, recognize what kind of person he has been, contemplating how he perhaps could have been different. To that end he seeks to fix his biggest mistake, which creates another issue that leads to an ending that happens the way it has to. It is fascinating to watch him go through the stages of sickness and recovery, followed by realizations.
Flip it around and it is interesting to watch Ira develop and mature as he is thrust into something bigger than himself in rapid fashion. He essentially has to learn on the job, and there is no amount of training that could prepare him for what is about to come.
On a more technical level, the story is an interesting insider look at fame and the isolation it can bring, from fake friends to the inability to connect on any meaningful level. We also get to see what it is like to break into the business, the troubles it brings, and the hard work that must be put into it.
From start to finish, Funny People is an interesting movie that offers a good number of belly laughs while also tugging at the heartstrings. Judd Apatow has a wonderful ability to blend the funny stuff and the serious stuff, cutting through to the heart of the matter, exposing these characters in all their glory where things are not black and white, where life is one shade of grey.
Just as good as the screenplay is, the performances are all first rate. I dare say this could be Adam Sandler's finest performance. There are moments where he plays George as the funny goofy guy, at other times the comedy is clearly a mask for the public, and then there are moments where the mask falls away and we see a hurt, confused, lonely man. It is a special performance. Then we have Seth Rogen, who does an admirable job of throwing himself into the role, although there are moments when he looks like he belongs somewhere else. It is serviceable, but his acting chops need a little work. No doubt funny, just not always convincing.
The supporting cast is strong and helps bring the entire project up a level. Jason Schwartzman is great as the self-absorbed star of a sitcom, while Jonah Hill plays another up and coming comedian who lives with Schwartzman and Rogen. These two bring plenty of funny in their limited screen time. In the second half we have have Leslie Mann and Eric Bana (getting to use his real accent for the first time in years). These two are funny, but they also bring a good deal of emotional weight to Sandler's story.
Overall, this is a very good film that does not quite reach the heights of Apatow's first two films, but that is a very tall order to fill. Still, this movie does a lot of things right, is very funny, and contains much in the way of emotional depth and truth. It is told in a manner that is both over the top and real at the same time, balancing the two well.
Bottom line. This is most definitely worth seeing. It is a funny and digs at a variety of things like finding your way in the world, dealing with the isolation of fame, and personal issues when you put your feelings ahead of others. Very good.