The esteemed Roger Ebert once said, “There are no great films that are too long, and no bad films that are too short.” It is a statement to which I subscribe. Audiences will gladly endure the length (The Dark Knight) if they feel it is time well spent.
But when they start complaining about their posterior alarm system going off, it's a sign that a film has far overstayed its welcome.
Judd Apatow is known for his tight circle of friends. Perhaps he may want to invite one that knows how to edit into that sanctum that can relieve audiences of this reoccurring problem with his films. He has proven through his efforts in writing (the immortal Freaks and Geeks, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Pineapple Express) and producing (Anchorman, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) that he knows funny. But the unwieldy lengths of his directorial efforts demonstrates he doesn't know when to wrap it up (his previous films have either hovered at or crept over the two-hour mark).
Funny People is a testament to this fact. Intermittently insightful, warm and witty, the film quickly degenerates into a droning mess, letting its leads prattle until any sympathy or compassion audiences may have once possessed for them is drained out, and the seat-chaffing begins.
Adam Sandler stars as a misanthropic version of himself by the name of George Simmons. It's a clever conceit, but hardly one that earns the actor the praise he's receiving for flexing any acting muscles. George has made his life starring in low-rung, cash-grab comedies that have amassed him a fortune, but left his life empty. When, early on in the film, he is diagnosed with cancer, he is forced to assess his wealth at the expense of human contact.
When he returns to the stand-up circuit from which he came for therapy, his act is about as comical as his disease, leaving the audience squirming uncomfortably. Ira Wright (played by Seth Rogan, in one of the few compassionate lead performances), is the young comic who must take the stage following Simmons' nosedive. While Ira is mocking the superstar, George sees potential and decides to make him his young charge to help navigate the new landscape of a world he has since lost touch with while shoveling cash into his bank account.
The two strike a reluctant bond, while George begins to use him as a friend as well as his page. One of the tasks he enlists Ira to help him with is to woo his life's love Laura (played by Leslie Mann), who is now married with two small children.
No offense to Mann, who is a fine actress and has solid comedic chops, but her subplot is the tire iron that loosens the wheels on this vehicle. While watching her and George behave like children, the film exhausts not only or sympathy, but our patience.
There are a number of brief, engaging performances peppered throughout, most notably from support players. Apatow has demonstrated he has a keen ear for the idle chatter between male friends, and the same applies in Funny, with Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman as Ira's fellow actor friends who all share a tiny apartment.
Eric Bana also does a bang-up job as Laura's excitable businessman hubby, but the whole storyline in which he's involved seems superfluous and just a chance for Apatow to employ his wife (Mann) and two young children (who co-star as the couple's kids).
Funny People feels like Apatow's attempt to cross over to James L. Brooks-type relevance as a filmmaker, but he cannot refrain from showering the film with an abundance of penis jokes. Honestly, I think one would have to watch a gay porn to match this film's obsession over male genitalia.
Not funny enough for a straight comedy and not enough pathos for a drama, Funny People remains wedged in the middle. It's a cinematic equivalent to renting a vacation house with a miserable, bickering couple. At times their banter is amusing, but very soon it becomes awkward, tiring and uncomfortable, and you cannot wait for the entire ordeal to conclude.