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.
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.
The failure of Funny People notwithstanding — and for all its merits, the film ultimately fails — Apatow remains the preeminent force shaping American screen comedy today, and one of the only American directors of recent vintage, who has hit upon that near-impossible alchemy of making unabashedly personal films with studio-sized budgets and turning them into mainstream hits. But as his ambitions and creative control over his work continue to grow, so will critics’ and audiences’ expectations of him, and he must be especially careful of surrounding himself with too many toadies and sycophants, who will indulge his every whim as though it were genius, for there are moments at which Funny People sits just on the cusp of becoming a too-many-yes-men type of movie. Dying, per the old adage, may be easy and comedy hard, but being Judd Apatow in today’s Hollywood may be the trickiest thing of all.
Funny People, written and directed by JUDD APATOW, produced by Apatow, Clayton Townsend and Barry Mendel, Universal Pictures, ditywide.