Two words will cause you to not enjoy "Funny People," writer/director Judd Apatow's brave new film in which real characters are set in real situations and the results are, well, real - unrealistic expectations.
Let's be honest.
You know what to expect from a man whose name is on virtually every successful comedy since 2005's "The 40 Year Old Virgin" made him synonymous with bromance, adult comedy and the awkward coexistence of truth in comedy.
You will go into "Funny People" expecting Adam Sandler to be the lovable goofball that he is, Seth Rogen to be the lovable schlub that he is and for Apatow's film to give both actors, plus Apatow's lovely wife Leslie Mann, numerous opportunities to shine while creating a laugh a minute comedy with touches of sweetness and a neat and tidy, warm and fuzzy story.
Admit it. You expect it.
The good news is, at least partially, you will have your expectations met and even exceeded. Sandler, Rogen and Mann are, indeed, afforded numerous opportunities to shine in this nearly 2 1/2 hour dramedy that contains more real, authentically manifested and contains more richly developed characters, perhaps too many, than in any other Apatow film.
"Funny People" is not the Judd Apatow film you will expect, however, "Funny People" is also not the "serious" Judd Apatow film now should it be seen as the "Sandler's gonna die" film.
"Funny People" is simply a darn fine, if modestly flawed film, in which Apatow takes the truth in comedy that he's been giving us since his breakthrough in 2005, and really before with such projects as "Freaks & Geeks," and allows fewer distractions and more truth to shine through.
Adam Sandler is George Simmons, a megastar comedian whose life has transcended the comedy clubs into worldwide fame as a movie star in such films as "Mer-Man" and "My Best Friend is a Robot," both supposedly co-starring Owen Wilson. Sandler's Simmons is a "star" in virtually every sense of the word with the stunning home, private jets and women who subject themselves to his every comic and sexual whim. Yet, Simmons also lives the other side of fame - the extraordinary isolation, the mistrust of newer "friends" and the safe distance at which everyone must be kept including the only woman he ever loved, Laura (Leslie Mann), who moved into to a seemingly idyllic life with two children (Mann and Apatow's own, Iris and Maude) and a workaholic husband (Eric Bana) who may be a bit more like Simmons than Laura would like to admit to herself.
When George discovers that he has a rare blood disease and limited time to live, into his life enters Ira (Seth Rogen), a wannabe stand-up comic who's not yet good but potentially could be. Ira is also a uniquely decent person in a Hollywood world that doesn't exactly reward decency, and his reward for said decency is to become George's personal assistant, confidante, escort through illness but, let us stress, not his friend.
It could be tempting to label "Funny People" a drama, a description that wouldn't be entirely accurate. However, Apatow has played it remarkably smart here by infusing "Funny People" with quite a bit of his trademark silly and genuinely felt humor, both in the film's stand-up scenes and in the natural relationships that develop between George, Ira, fellow comics, Ira's equally ambitious roommates (Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill) and, of course, Laura.
There's little denying, in fact, that "Funny People" is at its most effective when George is dying and, as a result, he inches ever close to his authentic self while coming dangerously close to actual bonding with Ira. It is only when George seemingly gets a reprieve from his fate that the film begins a slow descent into self indulgence with a trip by George and Ira to Laura's home and George's awkward dance with familial relationships. Perhaps it was simply knowing that the scene featured Apatow's wife and his real-life children, but the extended scene felt out of balance with the rest of the film, self satisfying, far too lengthy and, in all honesty, unnecessary.
Then, however, "Funny People" rights itself again into a rather glorious closing set of 20-25 minutes that leaves one appreciating the near masterwork that Apatow and cast have created and, dare I say it again, the brave and original work that defies the usual American brand of comedy.
Sandler has been serious and critically praised for it before, in films ranging from 2002's Paul Thomas Anderson flick "Punch-Drunk Love" to the limited success of the off-balance "Spanglish" to the revelatory and vastly underrated "Reign Over Me" in 2007. Sandler has become practically a master at giving his fans what they want for a couple of years, then tempting them with a dip into the dramatic pool. It is a successful strategy that has kept Sandler a bankable star while enhancing his acting credibility and, likely even more importantly, satisfying the actor's creative impulses.
"Funny People" may very well be the best Sandler performance yet, a nuanced blend of comedy and drama birthed in a character that he seemingly understands and certainly lives well within. Sandler finds those places in George that are awkward and uncomfortable, repulsive and repugnant, inviting and enticing. It's easy to understand why women would throw themselves at George, but it's also easy to understand why without Ira he's likely to die a lonely old man.
Rogen, while still lacking the range necessary to give Ira the depth of emotions one would like to see from the character who it seems is supposed to be a polar opposite of George, still exudes a common decency that brings Ira vividly to life even it explains why Rogen can't seem to come up with a comedy act that is truly his own. Rogen's Ira is smart, funny and a seemingly good guy who occasionally flirts with the dark side but always seem to pull back.
While Leslie Mann is given the least to do and certainly the most thankless scenes in the film, Mann does what she always does in a film - she embodies Laura with a rich sense of naturalness and heart. Mann takes a character that could very well have sunk "Funny People" with her extended, unnecessary scene and infuses such life into her that she's infinitely watchable even in a most unnecessary scene. She keeps "Funny People" afloat until hubbie Apatow gets back on track.
Now, that's love.
The supporting players are strong across the board including Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman as Ira's slightly more successful roommates who are seemingly self-absorbed yet themselves have a streak of decency that keeps them inviting. Eric Bana? Who knew the man could pull off genuinely funny yet authentically felt comedy? Simply brilliant. "Funny People" features a virtual cavalcade of comedy and pop culture cameos, some downright hilarious and others simply comfortable and familiar. None will be mentioned here, because they are best experienced rather than read about it in a review.
"Funny People" IS a good movie. It is a movie in which Apatow grows as a writer/director, Sandler grows as a comic and actor, Rogen stretches himself a bit and, yes, Apatow's legion of fans will be challenged to stretch and grow themselves.
"Funny People" is serious. "Funny People" is funny. "Funny People" is serious. "Funny People" is funny.
"Funny People" is about funny people living a life that is both serious and funny, the humor that comes out of both and, at times, the tragedy that happens when you don't know when to stop laughing.
Modestly inconsistent and a good 20 minutes too long, "Funny People" feels like it is both a love song and a tribute to Apatow's life journey and the people in it through their joys, sorrows, quirks and idiosyncracies. It is a film that breathes life through all its glorious imperfections and, in the end, leaves us pondering the choices we make and a life fully lived.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic