I got a copy of Funny People this week off of my Netflix cue. Funny People was the Judd Apatow movie (Apatow directed mega-hits The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) released about a year ago in theaters, starring Adam Sandler as a comedian who, like Adam Sandler, made some movies many regard as terrible, and used to do stand-up comedy. It didn’t do very well in theaters, and currently has a slightly-above-average critical rating on Metacritic.com and Rottentomatoes.com. It made slightly less money in worldwide box office ($71 million) than it cost to make ($75 million), so is probably considered a bit of a failure.
I’ll get the obvious out of the way – I loved Funny People. Although you could rightly call The 40 Year Old Virgin one of the best, most important movies of the 2000s, Funny People is certainly as good, a more thoughtful and more ambitious movie that is, completely, about the depth of the people who try and make a career of being funny. That the movie is quite funny on occasion is also quite the bonus, though judging from reviews you’ve read, the movie is the height of floppy melodrama.
It’s not even that I loved Funny People or found it surprisingly funny. I’m fascinated by it. To me, this is the height of terrific filmmaking – of superb acting, excellent direction and staging, but most of all, amazing writing.
For a movie that seems so endlessly casual and off-the-cuff – it follows a world of stand-up comedians almost obsessively belittling each other’s insecurities – it would make sense that much of the dialogue wound up being improvised. I have no idea if that’s true or not. What I do know is this is still extraordinary writing. You can tell from the details.
Each character is a master of complexities. Its main character, George Simmons (Adam Sandler), is a popular movie star, but is sad and lonely… and also caustic, horny, unsympathetic…and charming, and hopeful, and occasionally very wise. That he’s played by Adam Sandler is its own stroke of meta-genius, but there are also his “movies” that have made him a star – Re-Do, where a grown man is re-incarnated into a baby (or something), and Merman, where a man turns into a mermaid. Are these movies meant to appear as “terrible”? Sure, and they do appear that way, but they also appear as important to fans, and children, who obsessively mimic the voices he made famous in this mirror-version of Hollywood.
Even the phrase “appear as terrible” is misleading, because truly, I don’t know what those movies are. They’re meant to be, I suppose, about as good as a Rob Schneider movie (he “turns into” things all the time. I’m mostly reminded, though, of the South Park parody in which Schneider turned into a stapler, in The Stapler). They are merely choices in Simmons’ career, something which has been undeniably successful, and which starred an undeniable comedic force.
As a man, his humor bites. His assistant Ira (Seth Rogen) is constantly, mercilessly belittled by George – but then, so is George, and everyone else. George hires Ira to help him write jokes and be his personal assistant as he attempts to “do more stand-up.” Some of his stand-up involves George on a piano singing something that isn’t at all funny, despite a couple of laughs, and the scene is revelatory in its conflicting interests – a need for an audience he can’t stand, an ability to fuck endless women who always leave him.
Like George and the movies he’s appeared in, the stand-up feels real too. It turns out, according to the Funny People Wikipedia page, it was all filmed in front of a live audience as actual stand-up would be. They feel like real jokes with real reactions by real audiences. That isn’t to say it’s all funny (some of it certainly is very funny), but it is, certainly, full of things you’d laugh at on a night out with drinks. The awkward moments play like awkward moments. The characters too seem like the types of people who would tell these jokes. Rogen’s Ira, towards the end, has a bit about how his friends watch beautiful women on television and say “I want to fuck her,” whereas he feels tempted to say something more apt to his own personality, “I want to pick her up from the airport.” As George says to him, “you seem more like the Ira I like in real life on stage” doing this act, and you’re apt to agree.
Ah, but that’s the beauty of these characters. There’s another lead I haven’t mentioned yet, which is the character of Laura, played by Leslie Mann. Laura was the girl that got away from George, and when she finds out he’s sick, it rekindles something in her. In fact, we expect this plot line from the moment we see her, but we don’t expect the turns it takes, the swiftness with which it gets there. The scene in which the two see each other again initially is full of tears and honesty, and anger, and absolutely ignites the movie around it with barely-hidden emotions. If this was supposed to be a conventional comedy arc, a scene like this shouldn’t happen until at least the 2/3 mark.
I realize I got this far without saying the main plot of the movie – which is about George discovering he has cancer, responding to an experimental treatment, and actually changing his life, but not really in a manner you’d expect. Interviews I’d read of the movie in which Apatow described the movie as about a person who gets shaken by this incident, but doesn’t really change. In fact, George does change, but also stays his cantankerous, sometimes awful, cutting, lonely self.
That’s true of Laura too, who has passion re-ignited, but finds its practicality harder to deal with. There is one scene that is truly hilarious, and is also deeply moving. In it, a lie propelling the action is exposed, and Laura must keep up the lie, or not, and in the meantime justify her actions to her aussie-himbo husband, Craig (Eric Bana)… by imitating his paltry justifications in an Aussie accent. What an extraordinary scene. The accent is terrible, and shifting, and so so sad. Watching it from the sidelines, George and Ira are as fixated on its lack of quality as they are on its content, and so are we. That the scene gives you both is a marvel, but it gives you a third layer of civility that’s finally being ripped between its characters, and, truly, it’s a scene of accomplished characterization, deft timing, and many many layers to the people at its center.
But why did people object to Funny People so much when I found endless things to rave about? First on the list of complaints was that it wasn’t funny. Well, I suppose there are less gross-out belly laughs than in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but actually, I laughed in Funny People all the time. I don’t know if I’d ultimately call it a “comedy,” but that’s a problem of the limits of genre categorization, not the movie. To quote Roger Ebert’s review of a movie that was neither funny nor interesting, Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, “why do we have to be the cops enforcing these narrow rules of movie making?” Why indeed? Funny People is quite funny, and it has the power to be quite upsetting too. I’m not sure I even understand what benchmark it’s not living up to.
Because its humor often comes from the same place it did in Apatow’s previous two movies – from his same fey, monotone sarcasm as spoken between jovial friends trying to out-blasé each other. And also from the every day nature of the circumstances. The truth is, three years after seeing Knocked Up, the scene I remember laughing the hardest at was the one in which Kristen Wiig tells Katherine Heigl, in total monotone, that they should “hang out” sometime. The truth is, though the movie is less intended for big gutter laughs, I found the humor truer in Funny People than Knocked Up.
As for the other complaints? Reviewers have seized on the movie’s bleak outlook on life, its running time, and the length of time it devotes to its characters visit to Laura’s home in Marin County. Yes, it’s a long movie of characters often trounced by their choices in life, but I don’t know where I’d tell Judd Apatow to edit. I never found Funny People sluggish and found something to admire in every scene. From a screenwriting perspective, bits of plot dropped into a previous scene come up by slight reference in later scenes, so again, I don’t know that I’d have any practical editing suggestions. And the Marin County scenes – besides comprising nearly an hour of screen time – are the guts of the movie.
Those were the scenes in which I saw and believed that George could regret much of his life, wish for a better one, and still react the way a sometimes-scumbag does. Those were the scenes in which I could believe that Laura could be swept up in passion again only to reconsider her life, for better or for worse. Katherine Heigl complained of Knocked Up that the women were killjoys, painfully practical worrywarts while the men got to have all the fun and wish for more with their lives. Perhaps she’d find the same issue with Mann’s character here, except that I completely believed this person I saw on the screen.
Completely believed it, every second. This is the ultimate testament to the great writing and staging and acting I saw in Funny People. I believed that Laura was a person who used to be a sorta b-rate actress, perhaps appearing on Party of Five and commercials, that she was getting somewhere playing “the bitch” and that it never really went anywhere. I believed her husband could be casually cruel to her but actually be a horrible human being. And I believed that she believed she was getting someone different from George with him, and wound up with someone who’s the same. Sandler got very good press for his performance here (and he deserved even more better press, if not an Oscar nomination, but that’s a different conversation), but Mann too is outstanding. In life, you can look at a person and wonder if you understand what they’re thinking, and perhaps still feel hopelessly lost on the baffling complexities of their lives. The truest compliment of her work here is that I got it all – what she was thinking and what she wasn’t, what she told herself, and George, and Craig, and why she chooses what she chooses.
Is that bleakness on the moviemakers’ part? I don’t think so. Unlike, say, Revolutionary Road, I don’t think the movie is “saying” anything so bleak and angry about modernity, or our social world. If it “says” anything beyond its embodiment of character, it’s a sweet and only somewhat acidic moment at the Thanksgiving table, where George gives a cheers to everyone, saying that being with your friends, and being young are things to savor and love while you have them, and that getting old “kind of sucks.” Yet you look at him and think, he looks just as good as the 20-somethings he’s sitting with, he’s done things to remind him of how great life can be, and that life can be enjoyed by anyone willing.
Or to put it differently. One of George’s stand-up bits: “In your 20s, you look at old people and think, ‘I hate that, I don’t want to be like that.’ In your 30’s you think, ‘I hate the government! I hate politics!’ In your 40s, you think, ‘…I’m hungry.’” The triumph of Funny People is saying “I’m hungry.”