Ann Hornaday Movie Review: Judd Apatow's 'Funny People': Strange and Touching

Judd Apatow directs this movie about a terminally ill comedian (Adam Sandler) who forms a bond with a young comic (Seth Rogen) and helps boost his career. Video by Universal Pictures
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

Writer-director Judd Apatow makes his intent clear in the very title of "Funny People," whose double meaning resonates throughout this often hilarious, weird, sad and ultimately brave movie. The stand-up comedians who populate the film are funny ha-ha, sure. But they're also funny strange, and Apatow demonstrates both sides of those often confounding personalities with an alert, crude, compassionate eye.

As "Funny People" opens, comic superstar George Simmons (Adam Sandler) visits his doctor's office to receive the news that he is suffering from a rare, probably fatal form of leukemia. Back at his Italianate mansion by the sea, he's alone with his impending mortality: He has no one to tell.

Meanwhile, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) toils at his day job at a deli while working the unpaid Los Angeles comedy-club circuit by night. When George goes to a club to get in touch with his stand-up roots, he catches Ira's act and asks him to be his writing assistant and, it turns out, one-man entourage.

That is only the beginning of "Funny People," which proceeds to take thoroughly unexpected turns as George reassesses his life, reconnecting with family, friends and his ex-fiancee (played by Apatow's real-life wife, the sublime Leslie Mann). Meanwhile, Ira's ambiguous relationship with George -- which exists in that vaguely uncomfortable zone between paid employee and soul mate -- affects his other friendships, especially with his roommates Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman).

Make no mistake: "Funny People" is unmistakably an Apatow film, meaning it obeys the generic conventions of such predecessors as "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" in trotting out raunchy jokes about the male anatomy with tiresome, metronomic regularity. But here, Apatow seems particularly keen to explore the anxieties, sexual aggression and almost primal competitiveness simmering just under the jokes' infantile surface.

Like a glossier version of the recent indie comedy "Humpday," Apatow's "Funny People" offers a candid glimpse into the ritualized, repressed dynamics of male friendship, from the passive-aggressive way Mark -- a newly minted sitcom star -- happens to leave his paycheck on roommate Ira's pillow to a fight scene staged with hilariously authentic missed shots and frightened, mincing chases.

That sequence, which happens to feature the very Eric Bana that Rogen and Hill credited with their sex lives in "Knocked Up," is one of several hilarious set pieces in "Funny People," a movie in which big-name cameo players crop up early and often. A scene featuring James Taylor is brilliantly orchestrated by Apatow, and a later scene with Eminem -- set at a party attended by such real-life stand-ups as Norm Macdonald, Carol Leifer and Ray Romano -- is perversely amusing even if it exists solely to set up a groaner of a one-liner.

Even the most forced, artificial episodes in "Funny People" ring oddly true, because George's life -- the obscene wealth, the loneliness, the fame -- is odd. Perhaps not since "Sunset Boulevard" have the wages and eccentricities of celebrity been depicted with such tough, almost perverse honesty.

And, like that film, Apatow has found the perfect actor to embody the dark side of fame in Sandler, who might be uniquely qualified to play a man who is universally loved but not very likable. As he did in "Punch-Drunk Love" and "Reign Over Me," Sandler wisely underplays in "Funny People," never begging for sympathy even when George is at his existential nadir. Indeed, viewers could see "Funny People" almost entirely as a commentary on Sandler's own persona, as he assumes the funny voices and accents that have made him a star, strumming his guitar to compose improvised ditties about (what else?) Ira's nether regions and, later, the contempt he feels for his own audience.

It's those moments that make "Funny People" a brave movie, especially for a filmmaker who could so easily coast on the joke/setup/joke paradigm he's so profitably mastered. Instead, Apatow has decided to make a long, somewhat shapeless movie that steadfastly refuses to adhere to a rigid narrative structure. The result is a story that feels loose-limbed and slightly messed up, following its own idiosyncratic course to get at truths that can't be contained in three acts.

At nearly 2 1/2 hours, "Funny People" is arguably too long, but in the final analysis it earns that running time, if only because it's that rare mainstream Hollywood movie that feels genuinely spontaneous, unafraid to keep the audience just a little bit confounded and off-balance.

As for the audience itself, "Funny People" will no doubt resonate best with people tuned to a frequency that appreciates references to Wilco, Warren Zevon and the Raconteurs, as well as nonstop penis jokes. (It bears noting that Ira's quirky love interest, played by the wonderfully deadpan Aubrey Plaza, gets to deliver a welcome feminist retort.)

But it would be a shame if "Funny People" didn't find a wider audience beyond Apatow's core following, if only because George and Ira inhabit such ambitious, strange territory for a filmmaker who seems newly invigorated and inspired. He even earns the Gershwin reference in the names he's chosen for his creative, fractious protagonists. From his persistent vulgarity to newer, more serious themes involving sorrow, regret and moral reckoning, Apatow has created his own, characteristically bent rhapsody in blue.

Funny People (146 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality.

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