By Sherrie Li
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After devoting the first two films he directed,The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, to getting laid and having kids, respectively, Judd Apatow brings the circle of life to a close with Funny People, which stars Adam Sandler as George Simmons, a popular, Sandleresque movie star diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal form of leukemia. That’s the first indication that Funny People is meant as something more grown-up and serious than the Apatow norm. Another is that Apatow, frequently criticized for not paying much attention to the visual style of his movies, has enlisted cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who has shot all of Steven Spielberg’s films since Schindler’s List) to wrap the images in a hazy, Southern California glow.
When actors and directors start thinking outside of themselves, start worrying about how to get more respect or be taken capital-S seriously, it’s almost always a recipe for disaster, and with people who hail from the comedy world, the results can be especially disastrous (see: the career of Robin Williams). Besides which, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up already struck an inspired and seemingly effortless balance between comedy and pathos, which makes the idea of Apatow trying to impress people with his dramatic chops sound about as sensible as New Coke. Mercifully, Funny People is probably the least bathetic, self-pitying movie about death and dying to come out of Hollywood since Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life. When he receives his diagnosis, George doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for himself, or set out on some inspirational quest to do everything he ever wanted to do before he dies, or any of the other things people in movies usually do in the same situation. Instead, like probably most of the people you and I know who have faced similar bad news, he resolves to fight this thing the best he can and get on with the business of living.
That’s not to say that George doesn’t go through his share of denial, anger, bargaining and depression en route to accepting his condition. There’s a great, discomfiting scene early on — one that begs to be pushed even further — in which George lapses into a dark, stream-of-consciousness riff during a standup set at the famous Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, leaving the audience uncertain as to whether they should laugh or not. And there’s an even greater moment later, when a calmer George plays the piano onstage at the Improv while singing a made-up ditty about his impending mortality. Apatow shot those scenes in real comedy clubs in front of real audiences, and they have an unrivaled feel for the way comedians place nothing off-limits, least of all their own suffering — or that of others. After George implodes on stage in Hermosa Beach, the next act — a 20-something actor and comic named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) — makes light of George’s gloom and wins laughs for doing so. Afterward, when the comics meet up in the parking lot, George tells Ira he would have done the same thing when he was his age, and later asks him to write jokes for him.
So the world of the dying comedy legend intersects with that of the hungry up-and-comers — not just Ira but his roommates Leo (Jonah Hill), another aspiring actor-writer, and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), a hilariously pompous pretty-boy actor who’s recently landed the lead in a not very good high-school sitcom. This Hollywood bachelor pad, where Ira’s lack of income and industry clout is emphasized by his having to sleep on a foldout sofa, is the sort of situation Apatow can write with his eyes closed — a light redressing of Virgin’s electronics store and Knocked Up’s stoner enclave. But if this emotionally underdeveloped-white-male petri dish feels uniquely spot-on, it may be because Apatow himself toiled in similar obscurity upon his arrival in L.A., pounding the comedy-club pavement for a while before realizing he was more of a behind-the-scenes guy. He even roomed with Sandler at one point, and home-video footage Apatow shot in those days, of the actor prank calling American Express and Jerry’s Famous Deli, plays under the opening credits, the impish genius already on full display.
Apatow clearly knows a lot about the competitiveness and petty rivalries of showbiz people desperate to get their feet in the door, and the Hollywood scenes in Funny People remind you how soft and self-congratulatory the ones are in most other movies. (The parodies of George’s lamebrained blockbuster comedies, seen in the form of posters and film clips, are funnier than anything in Tropic Thunder.) Ira, who Rogen plays as a dithering mixture of Sancho Panza and a nervous Jewish mother, realizes that George is his big break, and Apatow shows us his willingness to exploit his proximity to a famous person — dying or not — for all it’s worth. And there are other things Apatow observes so well yet so indirectly that you wonder if people who haven’t lived in L.A. and known people like these characters will fully appreciate them. A wonderful Thanksgiving scene finds George and Ira and Ira’s friends improbably together under one roof, the famous and nonfamous alike, not a single blood relation among them but united in their pursuit of the Hollywood dream.
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