Thursday, July 30, 2009
A comic with a fatal disease
According to the new Judd Apatow movie, "Funny People," Adam Sandler has become part of comedy's old guard. Thinking of Sandler, who plays a stand-up comedian who makes dopey movies that appeal to five-year-olds, as a gray beard of humor depresses me, but that may be part of what this sometimes downbeat movie has in mind. After all, it's tough to make a totally funny movie about a guy with a fatal disease.
Here's how it works: Early on, Sandler's George Simmons learns that his days are numbered. Maybe because he wants to do something that offers the comfort of familiarity, George decides to hit the stand-up trail, where he meets a new generation of aspiring comics, most notably Seth Rogen's Ira Wright.
Wright eventually becomes an assistant to Simmons, who confides in the younger man, telling him that he wants him to be his near-constant companion, to write jokes for him and to serve as an all-around whipping boy. Simmons later reunites with his former girlfriend (Leslie Mann). She's married with children, but that doesn't stop the movie from letting the "romantic" part of the story play out. Why not? "Funny People'' runs for an unconscionable two hours and 26 minutes, a long time to be hanging out with self-absorbed comics whose routines center mostly on penis jokes.
Despite an abundance of dick jokes, "Funny People" qualifies as Apatow's attempt to grow his comedy into something more mature than anything he offered in "The 40-Year-old Virgin," "Knocked Up" or in movies he's produced. And at times, Apatow succeeds in showing us the kind of self-absorption and competitive drive it takes to earn a place in show business.
At its best, "Funny People" stands as an unflinching look at a comic whose life is devoted to jokes, celebrity, self-aggrandizement and meaningless sex. Sandler may not be that kind of person in real life, but he does a convincing job of playing one on screen. Apatow's movie doesn't dig deeply into why some comedians fit this profile, but the movie's theme -- the comic as misanthropic jerk -- seems weightier than anything Apatow previously has tackled. These guys aren't always likable; they're not supposed to be.
Apatow includes enough raunchy humor to appeal to his fan base. Whether they'll go along with the rest remains to be seen, and there's little question that an extended third act in which Simmons attempts to work out his relationship with his former girlfriend is a bit of a buzz killer.
There'll be lots of temptation to look at the movie as a collection of autobiographical observations. Apatow and Sandler once were roommates; Sandler's big-screen career is not unlike the one pursued by George Simmons; Apatow is married to Mann and their two daughters appear in the movie. There are also a number of cameos from comedians who appear as themselves: Ray Romano, Sarah Silverman and a hilariously bitter Eminem.
"Funny People'' moves in fits and starts, sometimes sidetracking with stories about Ira's roommates, another aspiring comic (Jonah Hill) and a sitcom star (Jason Schwartzman). Schwartzman's Mark Taylor Jackson is supposed to be a super-successful seducer of women, a trait that sets up tension about who'll be first to sleep with a deadpan female comic (Aubrey Plaza). Eric Bana shows up as the over-amped husband of Mann's character.
"Funny People'' includes scenes that don't work, scenes that do, standup that's not as funny as it purports to be, casual asides that make the movie feel realistic and a few sentimental touches. It's more interesting -- if not more successful -- than previous Apatow comedies. But Apatow should have taken a look at the clock: two hours and 26 minutes is too long for a movie that has about an hour and a half's worth of subject. Simmons learns he has a fatal disease and the movie almost succumbs to one as well, a willingness to go on long after there's any reason to continue.