‘Funny People’: Long, but not on laughs

July 30, 2009

“Funny People” presented me with a dilemma going in.

 

On the one hand, I was a fan of writer-director-producer Judd Apatow and his muse, Seth Rogen.

 

On the other hand, I’ve rarely found Adam Sandler funny. I recognize that there’s an entire generation that regards Sandler as a comic god; I would submit that they worship a false deity.

 

Still, I never would have predicted that, at the end of “Funny People,” I’d have more kind things to say about Sandler than Apatow.

 

Having reeled off a string of hits as a director or producer (“The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” “Adventureland,” “Pineapple Express”), Apatow apparently has reached an exalted state where no one in Hollywood questions his judgment about the movies he makes (despite the fact that “Knocked Up” and “40 Year Old Virgin” were both 20 minutes too long). He also seems to have started believing his own press about being the preeminent fount of comedy in the modern world, infallibly in touch with the zeitgeist (OK, maybe not infallibly; otherwise, how to explain “Year One,” “Step Brothers” and “Drillbit Taylor”?).

 

So, naturally, this is the moment he decided to make his comedy epic, the movie he apparently has been dying to make. It can’t just be a standard movie – it’s got to be big enough to encompass all of Apatow’s many great thoughts.

 

As a result, “Funny People” is 146 minutes, approximately the same length as “Transformers 2,” “Harry Potter 6” and “Public Enemies,” the summer’s longest films. Unfortunately, it runs out of laughs after about an hour – and out of inspiration after 90 minutes. That leaves another hour to fill – and filler is what we get.

 

Ostensibly based on Apatow’s relationship with Garry Shandling (who went through a cancer scare once upon a time), “Funny People” is about a very hot comedian, George Simmons (Sandler), who is told he has an incurable form of leukemia and that he’s going to die. It’s also about Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling stand-up, who George hires to write for him and serve as his assistant.

 

The first half of the film is about the development of their relationship: the irascible, sometimes nasty George, who must come to terms with his own mortality; and the sweet-natured Ira, who discovers that his idol has feet of clay, even as he convinces him to reach out to the people he cares about so that he can die without regrets.

 

The second half, however, is about what George does with his second chance at life, once he goes into remission, thanks to experimental Canadian drugs. And what he does is try to reconnect with his one true love, a former actress named Laura (Leslie Mann, who is Mrs. Apatow), even though she’s married and leading a domestic existence in Marin County.

 

All of this is fine – there are dick jokes galore (and plenty of other vulgarly funny material) and most of them work – but Apatow overstuffs the movies, spending time on too many other threads and subplots. If this were simply about the George-Ira and George-Laura dynamic, that could work – but Apatow apparently felt incapable of cutting out any of the genius material he wrote and filmed and with which he overloads this film.

 

So we get far too much about Ira’s relationship with his roommates: the creepily successful sit-com actor Mark (Jason Schwartzman) and the more happening stand-up Leo (Jonah Hill). There’s also a lot about Ira’s ineffectual pursuit of a neighbor, Daisy (Aubrey Plaza). This is the kind of material that a less self-indulgent director would have marked for the “DVD extras” bin and which Apatow deems too golden not to include.

 

And then there’s the film’s second half, which could have been a movie by itself: Apatow’s attempt at farce by placing Ira and George in Laura’s house, where George beds and woos Laura, attempting to convince her to leave her cheating husband Clarke (Eric Bana) – just as Clarke unexpectedly walks in the front door. This sequence is extended by lengthy scenes involving Apatow’s two daughters (who play Laura’s kids).

 

And that’s not to mention Apatow’s inclusion of scenes of George/Sandler shmoozing with George/Sandler’s stand-up buddies, including Paul Reiser, Dave Attell, Andy Dick, Carol Leifer and Norm McDonald (and, for good measure, Eminem), all of whom play themselves. “Broadway Danny Rose” it ain’t.

 

Somewhere along the line, Apatow simply gives up on maintaining any sense of momentum or pace. He also, at various moments, loses track of Ira, then reinserts him in the plot in a way calculated to provide the conflict that wraps everything up.

 

Surprisingly – and I say surprisingly because I’m always surprised when Adam Sandler exhibits actual talent – Sandler finds the darker edges of this character, revealing an empty soul that suddenly cringes upon recognizing itself. Yes, he can handle a one-liner and, yes, Apatow gives him plenty of those to toss off. But that’s to be expected. It’s the depth of the character he creates that is the pleasant shock here.

 

Rogen is his match, casual in his delivery but always for maximum effect. He too plays the tortured soul without calling attention to himself – but, like Sandler, he can’t find jokes where Apatow hasn’t written any. Nor can he invest flaccid material with the necessary body.

 

Leslie Mann has a wonderfully sharp delivery, which she showed in “Knocked Up,” and demonstrates here. And I can’t fault Schwartzman, Hill or Plaza, all of whom make the most of the moments they’re given – or at least the ones in which there is something of substance to be found.

 

But “Funny People” is sadly solipsistic, an overweight, out-of-shape comedy with serious aspirations and not nearly enough discipline to see them through. It’s only half a good movie – and that’s not half good enough.

 

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