To describe Funny People as funny is applying a misnomer – there’s no funny people in it. Unfortunately, that seems to be the movie's point. Director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) has now become an industry onto himself - he writes, produces and directs scatological comedies (Superbad, Pineapple Express) with an underlay of social commentary. Now he wants to make his own version of Terms of Endearment (not my idea of a ringing endorsement). But instead of a dysfunctional family finding its mettle in the face of cancer, we have instead a group of desperate comedians learning to value life with all its emotional commitments. But where Terms of Endearment hit a nerve in some people, perhaps because they were moved by the sentimental notion of a determined mother (Debra Winger) desperately bringing her bickering family together (while bravely confronting her own mortality), Funny People is filled with stoners and malcontents learning life’s lessons. The picture drowns in its own wetness.
The story follows George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a successful infantile comedian (much like Sandler himself) who has made a number of hits out of low-brow infantile comedies (much like Sandler himself). Although he’s rich, famous and popular, the undercurrent is that - hold your breath – he’s actually an unhappy man with no close friends and divorced from the woman he truly loves (Leslie Mann). To make matters more miserable, Simmons has been diagnosed with leukemia. His doctor provides an experimental medication that gives him a slim chance for survival. As Simmons ruminates over the fame and ruin of his life, he decides to go back to his roots in the small comedy clubs where he made his success. It’s there that he meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogan), an aspiring young comic who works during the day in a deli (where most comics seem to get their start). Wright shares an apartment with his best friend Leo (Jonah Hill), another stand-up on the rise, and TV star Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), an annoyance who happily gloats about his financial and sexual success.
The night Simmons and Wright meet, Simmons delivers a morose set of comedy routines that Wright (who follows) parodies. Simmons watches the young upstart make fun of his work and later decides that this kid should write routines for him. While becoming Simmons’ assistant, Wright comes to learn about his boss’s condition. The picture examines how Simmons mentors Wright to be a good stand-up, just as Wright gets Simmons to stand up to his responsibilities and reach out to those who care, and to those he cares for.
For about the first hour, Funny People appears to be showing us how very funny people are actually truly desperate, lonely people. But there’s nothing fresh about that particular revelation (which was also given a thorough working over a couple of decades ago in Punchline, with Tom Hanks and Sally Field), nor is it a very compelling one. The desperation should already be obvious to us in the routines themselves. That's part of the reason why, in the most basic sense, we laugh at jokes about people slipping on a banana peel. By casting Adam Sandler, a comic who turns self-admiration into a form of hubris, as a man trying to plumb the depths of his soul, Judd Apatow has started with the wrong comedian. Sandler’s form of comedy, like Jerry Lewis’s, is not based on the pain of the nerd – but the rage of the nerd. Cruelty and sadism are the motivating instincts, the worm turning on a world that’s scorned him. This form of comedy (also displayed by The Three Stooges) has its roots in Jewish comedy where Jewish pride and defiance is firmly perched at the edge of the abyss. (It’s not surprising then that Sandler’s best line in Funny People comes when he tells a Jewish woman who finds guys on J-Dates that, being Jewish, he’s suspicious about being on any list.) But the film only raises the underpinnings of that style of Jewish comedy without ever really exploring it.
Adam Sandler also lacks the depth of, say, a Richard Pryor, who could make you understand his rage and profound disbelief as a black American while making you laugh at how confounding he finds white folks. In Funny People, George Simmons is nothing more than Happy Madison on downers. As for Seth Rogan, I fear he’s suffering from overexposure (like Jack Black). His genial stoner sensibility is starting to become tiresome and dull. The casting of Jason Schwartzman, one of the most narcissistic of bad actors, as a narcissist, is only another kind of hubris. Leslie Mann, who was truly sparkling while teamed with the appealing Paul Rudd in Knocked Up, is given the thankless part of the ex-wife who has to see what she missed by giving up on Simmons. As if to punish her further, Apatow hands her Eric Bana as the husband. While it’s unique to hear Bana in his native Australian tongue, the tongue is as heavy and dull doing comedy as it is speaking in a drama.
All of Judd Apatow’s films are slickly constructed comedies designed to draw subversive laughs while ultimately making us accept status quo values. Which is why we likely remember more fondly Steve Carell’s desperate fumbling into sexual fulfillment in The 40-Year-Old Virgin rather than his earnest confession of his virginity to Catherine Keener, the woman he loves. We probably got more pleasure watching – and believing – the strains of comic tension in the marriage between Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd in Knocked Up, rather than the dubious notion that the only satisfying relationship Katherine Heigl could get is Seth Rogan. Since Funny People tries more for pathos than laughs, it sags. (And at 2 ½ hours, the picture is an albatross.)
Naturally, given that we are in the world of male comics, the bulk of the humour here is penis jokes (of which there are more than in any Hollywood comedy in memory). But I don’t think I’ve heard so many jokes about erected cocks in a picture that turns out to be so flaccid.