There is a reason I’m not a professional comedian. I mean, apart from the obvious “you’re not funny” reason, thanks.
As much as I’ve always lived and breathed movies, there was a period of time where I found myself bitten by the comedy bug, way back in the late ’80s/early ’90s. There’s an immediacy to live performance that filmmakers never really get to experience, and it’s a radically different discipline. I worked at it for a while, but can you guess what ultimately drove me to choose not to pursue that goal?
Part of it was watching people who were so innately gifted that I felt like I could work at it for twenty years without ever getting as good as them. But more than that, the backstage culture in the comedy world was so toxic, so venal, so deeply unpleasant, that I decided that the brutal shark tank of Hollywood screenwriting seemed like a comparative cakewalk.
People have attempted to capture this world on film before, like in the Tom Hanks film “Punchline,” but until now, I don’t think we’ve ever really had a significant film about the people whose primary job is to make other people laugh. It’s a world Judd Apatow is intimately familiar with, and in some ways, you could call this the “Almost Famous” of the comedy world. It’s a story about people who have reached the pinnacle of success interacting with people who are just starting out, and the vast gulf of experience between them. It’s also about the things that drive these people, and just how serious the business is overall. It’s a character-driven movie much more than a plot-driven one, and the result is a movie that feels like two distinct halves of a story, both given room to breathe. It’s not what I would call a typical film structure, but I give Apatow credit for following these characters through some dark and unsympathetic moments in his efforts to be honest to the world and to who they are.
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Seth Rogen stars as Ira Wright, a young comic who is struggling in the LA club circuit to define his voice as a performer. He’s writing jokes, looking to get whatever stage time he can get, locked into a passive-aggressive competition with his roomates Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), who both seem to be figuring out the game faster than he can. Ira’s still not even sure who he is as a comic when, one night, he meets his comedy hero George Simmons, played by Adam Sandler.
George is a superstar, a Hollywood icon, but he’s also a man at a crossroads. Having just learned that he has a potentially fatal disease, George is feeling lost, alone. That’s because, technically speaking, he is alone. He has acquaintances, business associates, but no real friends. So when he wants to reach out to someone, he’s not sure where to turn. Him meeting Ira turns out to be a bit of good luck for both of them, because Ira needs a mentor, a role George is more than equipped to play in his life, while George needs a friend, a role Ira can’t believe he’s lucky enough to step into.
For the first half of the film, Apatow seems to be interested in the relationship between Ira and George and the ripples that play out from that relationship in Ira’s career, George’s health, the careers of Leo and Mark, and the LA comedy scene in general. It’s good stuff, amiable and sort of shaggy, and Apatow takes his time, letting the two of them ease into this symbiotic thing they share. Both of them know they’re getting something from each other, but the question is can you be friends with someone you’re using if you’re both aware it’s going on? Ira makes some questionable calls regarding his friends, and Leo in particular, but at the same time, both Mark and Leo make some choices that seem to spare little thought for Ira, so it’s not like anyone really walks away clean. George is a role unlike anything Sandler’s played before because of just how emotionally hollow he seems to be. Even in his most eccentric roles, Sandler has always possessed this simple, approachable warmth that has made him into a comedy star, but here, he plays a guy who just isn’t wired to give a shit about anyone except himself. Even once he’s dying, he practically has to be forced to reach out to his family or to people he used to be close with, and those encounters don’t all play out in stereotypical fashion. George never really has his Ebenezer Scrooge moment where he suddenly becomes a better person, and the movie’s better for it.
Instead, George becomes fixated on correcting what he sees as his worst personal mistake, the ending of a relationship with his one true girlfriend, Laura, played by Leslie Mann. She’s married now, with kids, and when George first reaches out to her, there’s a lot of scar tissue they both carry that threatens to make any reconciliation impossible. But the more time Laura spends around him, the more she makes herself believe that George has changed, that he’s finally ready to love other people as much as he loves himself, and she takes her own dissatisfaction with her marriage as an excuse to explore these old feelings, fresh once more. She’s convinced that her husband Clarke (Eric Bana) is cheating on her whenever he’s away on business, so she feels no shame in going to bed with George, even if her kids are in the house and Ira’s watching them, fully aware and disapproving. Each of the main adult leads in the film — Sandler, Mann, Rogen, Bana — offer up nuanced, intelligent performances, and Rogen in particular seems to me to be growing into a unique leading man, less the young Albert Brooks he seemed to be at first and more of a unique personality all his own.
People in this film make despicable choices, but they always have justifications, reasons that seem perfectly valid to them. And “sorry” doesn’t really seem to be part of anyone’s vocabulary. I expect some audiences will be deeply uncomfortable with some of the behavior on display, conditioned by Hollywood to expect that anyone who steps over certain lines has to get punished, but that’s not what Apatow is about. He looks past these surface behaviors to try and see what drives all this self-motivation, to see if there’s anything else in there, anything that redeems the behavior. Trying to play the game of what’s real and what’s not in the film is missing the point; I’m sure Apatow has seen all sorts of amazing transgressions in his time in show business. Ultimately, though, these people are a dysfunctional community, a family of necessity, and Apatow’s interested in how this one shared dream, of simply sparking laughter in these crowds of strangers, is enough to somehow bind them, no matter what they do to each other. And that sort of ambition is so rare in American comedy that Apatow’s film feels uncommonly rich.
It’s not perfect. It meanders. It chases story threads that go nowhere. There are more characters than the film can fully service. But the rough edges are what make the film feel alive to me. That’s what gives it a pulse. Aziz Ansari has made a real splash with his “Raaaaaaaandy!” character in viral online videos, but onscreen, you’ll see him for about four minutes total. Aubrey Plaza’s character Daisy gets shortchanged, too, considering how interesting she seems in her brief time onscreen. But if my complaints come down to “I’d like to spend more time with many of the characters” and “there’s too much good stuff,” then there are definitely worse problems for a filmmaker to have. Janusz Kaminski’s photography is clean and warm, and the score by Jason Schwartzman provides just the right emotional support for the film. I think the movie as a whole signals some real growth for Apatow, and it feels like he’s brought one phase of his career to a conclusion here, paving the way for him to really stretch next time out.
“Funny People” may not be the home-run grand-slam that Apatow was reaching for, but it’s got real heart and real honest insight into the psychology of what makes some people pour themselves out emotionally bare onstage each night, and I’ll take one imperfect film packed with this much substance over a dozen slicker, simpler comedies with nothing much to say.
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