Sunday, September 06, 2009

Review - Funny People

The films Judd Apatow has written and directed so far have tended to deal with life's messier, more complicated rituals – first-time sex in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, unexpected pregnancy in Knocked Up – and his new film Funny People is his messiest, most complicated yet. Funny People is a film about a man facing up to his own mortality, questioning his life choices, and then being given a second chance to put things right. These are big themes to be tackling in a mainstream American comedy, and I take my hat off to Apatow for his valiant effort in trying to make a film that's really about something deep and meaningful, while simultaneously attempting to break the record for dick jokes in a single movie. Such a delicate balancing act would be a tricky proposition for all but the most adept of filmmakers, so perhaps it's no surprise that Funny People eventually trips up over its own confused feet. Rather than the conflicting tones, however, it's the odd structure of Funny People's narrative and the film's general air of self-indulgence that eventually prove to be its most damaging elements.
Funny People opens with home video footage of a young Adam Sandler making prank calls during his days as Apatow's college roommate. Here, the actor is playing a comedian named George Simmons, although his career draws obvious parallels with Sandler's own; progressing from stand-up to movie mega-stardom via a series of lowbrow comedy hits. He's hugely successful, but he's also alone, having nobody he can truly call a friend and still lamenting the loss of the one woman he loved. When he is diagnosed with a rare blood disorder and prescribed experimental medication, George falls into a maelstrom of despair and self-reflection. He sits gazing at clips of his career, he attempts to build bridges with old flame Laura (Leslie Mann), and in one of the film's most disquieting scenes, he returns to stand-up, bemusing an audience with a self-pitying rant about impending death.

Watching from the wings as George melts down on stage is an aspiring comedian named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who follows the star on stage and gets laughs from his depressed demeanour ("Coming up next, Robin Williams is going to slit his wrists"). George catches Ira's act and likes what he sees, asking the young comic to be his assistant. Ostensibly, Ira's role will be to write material for George, but essentially George is buying Ira's friendship. His tasks extend beyond simply writing gags and into much more intimate territory, such as being George's confidant, helping him get his affairs in order, comforting him when he's sick, talking to him while he falls asleep, and accompanying him on a foolhardy mission to win back his ex, who is now married with two children (played by Apatow and Mann's own). It's at this point in the narrative that Funny People begins to wobble alarmingly, with Apatow's decision to follow a fresh narrative path over an hour into his picture leaving the film feeling unbalanced.

In fact, he might have been well advised to stick to the road he was following, because Funny People's opening hour is mostly excellent; delivering the raucous humour we associate with these films while finding a resonant sense of pathos in George's plight. George Simmons is not a particularly likable lead character, being neurotic, bitter, self-obsessed and frequently cruel to those around him, and Sandler gives a finely calibrated performance in the role, lending his initially abrasive character a soulful, sympathetic quality, and smoothly shifting gears as the role requires it. His relationship with Ira is the core of the film's first half, the openness and sunny optimism of the young wannabe contrasting sharply with the disillusionment of the superstar. Ira is desperate to please his idol and to help him through his dark period, but he has to withstand numerous outbursts and humiliations from the volatile George for his troubles.

Then George finds out he's not sick anymore, resolves to turn his life around, and the movie stalls. Much of the film's final hour and a half takes place at Laura's home, where George tries to convince her to leave her husband and to rekindle the relationship they abandoned ten years previously, and an increasingly uncomfortable Ira tries to stop him from bringing trouble on himself and tearing this apparently happy family apart. After an opening hour which was brisk and consistently funny, Apatow allows his film to drift through this segment, with all of the tension and dramatic impetus quickly seeping out of it, and even the arrival of Laura's husband (Eric Bana, giving his loosest and funniest turn since Chopper) can't pull the picture out of its mawkish funk. This director has been accused of self-indulgence before, but The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up felt like much more rounded and complete works, films that built to a natural end point, whereas it seems as if Apatow has let this bigger, more ambitious piece of work to get away from him. The film eventually stutters to a close without bringing its central themes together in a satisfying way.

Ultimately, there's a lack of focus and discipline in Funny People's storytelling and editing choices that leaves it feeling lugubrious when it should be tight and sharp. Different viewers will all have their own opinions about what could and should have been cut. Some may cite the celebrity cameos (I loved Eminem's tirade at Ray Romano, and James Taylor's "Fuck Facebook", but I could have lived without the others), some might point at the moderately funny stand-up routines, whereas I'd be inclined to highlight the supporting characters, usually one of the richest components of an Apatow film., who don't really shine here. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman recycle their over-familiar shtick to little effect as Ira's roommates, and Ira's hesitant courtship of another young comic (Aubrey Plaza) feels like an irrelevant distraction from the central drama. Funny People is probably the boldest of Apatow's directorial efforts to date, but it is also his weakest. It toys with grand themes but never really gets to grips with them, and for a film with so much going on at once, it feels oddly empty at the end of it all. Sure, Funny People made me laugh a lot, but the film also shows it's not enough for a director to know what's funny, he has to know what's necessary, and with this film I can't help feeling that less would have been so much more.