By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
There’s so much that’s so disarmingly good and sharp about Funny People that you wish the whole movie were better put together, that it wasn’t so much of a shambles. I’ve seen the film twice, and both times exactly halfway into its two-and-a-half-hour running time I have felt the cabin shudder and noticed tiny fissures forming in the fuselage. That’s about the point in the movie where George goes in for a checkup and learns that the experimental drugs he’s been taking seem to be working and that he may not be dying after all. “Get back to your life,” the doctor intones, and the rest of Funny People is about George’s dawning realization that he doesn’t much like the life he had before, socializing with celebrity pseudo-friends (cue raft of cameos from Sarah Silverman, Eminem, et al.) and perambulating his giant, Xanadu-like mansion, surrounded by mountains of useless swag. So he decides to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann, the real-life Mrs. Apatow), whom he cheated on 12 years ago and who now has a new life with a businessman husband (Eric Bana) and two young daughters (played by Apatow’s own kids, Maude and Iris).
It’s hard enough for a movie to withstand the introduction of a whole set of major characters past the point when most movies are wrapping things up, and it’s even harder when those characters feel so incongruous to everything that has come before. On the one hand, Laura and her brood should seem incongruous to George and his solitary life, but the feeling is one of a different, unintentional mismatch. When George and Laura have their first big scene together, it doesn’t feel like these two people have a shared history together, even less so in Mann’s scenes with Bana. When Laura tells George that her husband cheats on her, there’s no weight behind the line, and it’s the line that’s the problem more so than the delivery.
Apatow has been accused of not writing good parts for women — unfairly, I think, because Catherine Keener’s role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin was that rare, smart and sexy role for a woman over 40 in a major Hollywood movie. But here the accusation sticks because Laura’s inner life hasn’t been thought out nearly as well as those of George, Ira and all the other guy parts. (Mann actually had a much better version of this same role in Knocked Up.) By the end, the character becomes a cog in a series of third-act plot machinations that feel horribly contrived by Apatow’s standard and which betray the organic feel of the earlier scenes. Never did I believe that this woman would, for so much as a second, entertain the idea of divorcing her husband and uprooting her children to run off with her long-lost love, and in a movie where this possibility is the basis of the entire third act, that’s a big thing not to believe.
Apatow’s obvious model here is Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News director James L. Brooks, who gets a thanks in the end credits and who, prior to the arrival of Apatow himself, was the industry’s highest-profile purveyor of intelligent, personal, character-driven comedies. For my money, this is a case where the student, Apatow, long ago surpassed the “master,” Brooks, whose visual style is even cruder than Apatow’s and whose last two films (As Good as It Gets and Spanglish) were as phony through and through as Funny People is in its lesser moments. But where Apatow falls short of Brooks is in his desire to redeem all his characters, to forgive even the worst behavior and to send everyone — onscreen and in the audience — home, happy. A movie that strives to convey the depth of feeling and the range of emotion that Funny People so clearly does badly needs at least one moment of selfishness or cruelty comparable to the fake tears of William Hurt’s reporter in Broadcast News, or the betrayal of Nick Nolte’s over-the-hill film star by a bubbly young assistant in I’ll Do Anything. Apatow has plenty of opportunities, but the closest he comes — a scene in which George callously checks his cell phone while Laura is held tearfully rapt by a family home video — makes only a softball impact (though it might have made a bigger one if we felt there was more at stake for the characters). For a movie with countless dick jokes and in which the final clearly audible word of dialogue is “balls,” you wish that Apatow’s own cojones were a wee bit bigger.
Even Sandler can’t fully make the second half work, though it’s not for lack of trying. His performance here is, in many ways, the one I think those of us who like Sandler, who believe he’s a major figure in American pop culture, have been waiting for him to give. He was excellent a few years ago as the combustible warehouse manager of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, but his work here is different because it cuts even closer to Sandler’s essence as a performer, the closest any movie character he’s played has come to the mix of working-class affability, Jewish neuroses, emasculated rage and infantilism he projects in his standup and comedy albums. It’s a beautifully open, lucid piece of work.
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city