Funny People

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 07/31/09 05:02:48

"A flawed, self-indulgent, personal project."
3 stars (Just Average)

Nothing says overlong, bloated, excessive, and self-indulgent like 146-minute long comedy-drama. The comedy-drama in question is Judd Apatow’s "Funny People," his follow-up to "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year Old Virgin," both critical and commercial hits. In comedy, as with most endeavors, you’re only one box office failure away from the end of your filmmaking career (or, at least, significantly smaller budgets). "Funny People" may not seriously derail Apatow’s career as a filmmaker, but it’s also unlikely to attract the mainstream audiences that made his previous films commercial hits. That may be unimportant, at least right now, to Apatow, who probably has enough good will to overcome one box office disappointment (two, if it came to that, would be more problematic). Apatow has obviously made the film he wanted to make, without compromise and, thus, without studio interference.

Funny People centers on George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a super-successful comedian and film actor, who despite fame and wealth, lives shallowly. He has business contacts, but no friends. He meets and beds attractive young women, but a long-term, meaningful relationship seems out of reach. Everything changes when a seemingly routine medical visit with Dr. Stevens (Allan Wasserman) reveals he has a rare form of late-stage leukemia. With radiation and chemotherapy out as options, George agrees to participate in an experimental drug treatment under the supervision of Dr. Lars (Torsten Voges). The 8% success rate for the new treatment doesn’t bode well for George’s chances, so he decides to return to his roots: stand-up comedy. His first attempt leaves a crowd befuddled, so he turns to Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling comedian in his mid-twenties to write jokes for him and become his personal assistant.

By day, Ira works in a deli where he tries to convince one of his co-workers, Chuck (RZA), to attend his comedy club appearances. By night, he works on his comedy routine in front of a live audience (without pay) or has run-ins with a super-obnoxious comedian, Randy (Aziz Ansari). He lives with two friends, Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), the star of a new, “hip” sitcom, “Yo! Teach,” and Leo Koenig (Jonah Hill), another comedian. While Ira has his eye on a neighbor and comedian, Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), the self-centered, self-serving Jackson gives him 11 days before he’ll make a move on Daisy. The new gig as Simmons’ joke writer, personal assistant, and semi-official friend, however, gives Ira renewed optimism. Wallowing in self-doubt and stuck in self-reflective mode, George decides to renew contact with the “love of his life,” Laura (Leslie Mann). Laura, however, is married to Clarke (Eric Bana), an Australian businessman, and the mother to two daughters, Mable (Maude Apatow) and Ingrid (Iris Apatow).

Apatow roughly divides Funny People into two halves, the first centering on George’s battle with cancer and his sometimes awkward mentor-friendship-employee relationship with Ira, and the second on his pursuit of Laura, regardless of the consequences. To his credit, Apatow doesn’t go for the easy answers, either to George and Ira’s relationship or George and Laura’s, refusing to give his characters or, by extension, the audience, unrealistic, if emotionally satisfying resolutions to their dilemmas and personal conflict. Life-lessons are inevitable, but the characters in Funny People change, if they change at all, almost imperceptibly and, thus, more realistically. Epiphanies, if they come at all, are fleeting and, if not inconsequential, have limited utility. Apatow, however, also lets his self-indulgent side get the better of him.

Not surprisingly, "Funny People" is a Valentine to comedy as an art form and to comedians as the practitioners of that art form, but Apatow includes too many extraneous scenes, too many subplots, too many well known and lesser-known comedians only comedy fans would recognize, and frankly, way too many dick jokes. Not there’s anything intrinsically wrong with dick jokes, but when every other joke involves penis length, thickness, or ball-licking, it’s a sure sign that the writer isn’t trying very hard (or at all). By deciding to release a 146-minute “Director’s Cut” straight to movie theaters instead of waiting for the DVD and Blu-Ray release later this year where a longer, more tangent-heavy cut wouldn’t have been a problem, Apatow gave us too of a mediocre thing. A shorter, tighter running time would (or could) have elevated "Funny People" into one of the better movies of the year.

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