Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a movie star who finds out he has a rare blood disease, and is not expected to survive. George was once a brash, edgy comedian, but he became successful and cranked out several terrible family comedies (somehow the filmmakers came up with fake movies, such as Merman and My Best Friend Is a Robot, that seem even worse than Sandler’s real movies) that made him rich and complacent. George gradually lost or grew distant from any friends he once had, and now he totally lacks the kind of support system a person needs during this kind of ordeal. The only people who love him are those who don’t know him. So, he sits alone in his oceanfront mansion, surrounded by his own films and movie posters.
Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is an up-and-coming comedian who isn’t very funny yet and is still trying to find his voice. Ira is in a subdued competition with his two roommates, Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), who are both also comedians and are both more confident and successful than Ira is. Leo has become a regular performer at the Improv comedy club, and Mark is the lead in Yo, Teach!, a deliciously terrible sitcom.
One night after his diagnosis, George decides to do some stand-up, and bombs spectacularly at the Improv. Ira performs next, and lambasts George’s morbidity. George takes a liking to Ira, and hires him to write jokes for him, be his assistant and talk to him as he tries to fall asleep. It’s an uneasy mix of friendship, hero worship, mentoring and symbiosis, as each of the two gets something he needs from the other.
Except for maybe the Tom Hanks film Punchline, there haven’t been any films that have really dealt with comedians and the business of comedy in depth. This is a world that Apatow came up in, and he obviously has some bittersweet feelings toward it. He never shies away from showing how ruthless and dysfunctional the business and its practitioners can be, and how the urge to get on a stage and make people laugh may not come from the cheeriest place in a person.
Living up to its name, the movie is very funny, and is as stuffed with jokes as Apatow’s previous two films, The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Those movies were a refreshing mix of heart and hilarity, but Apatow is obviously going for something a little deeper and more personal here. Rogen and his pals spend a lot of time trading barbs, as in Knocked Up, but here we get the feeling that they mean their insults.
In what is a relatively rare move for a comedy, Apatow’s script doesn’t seem to care at all whether the characters seem likeable or not. All the characters are weak and flawed. Ira can be professionally very opportunistic and competitive, and his roommates make equally thoughtless decisions toward him. George almost congenitally doesn’t care about anyone except himself and can seem staggeringly emotionally hollow at times. Everybody in the film is given ample opportunity to make some terrible choices, and most of them do so, but they still manage to engage you.
This is probably Adam Sandler’s best performance. In his other dramatic films, such as Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, Sandler’s characters tended to retain aspects of the rageaholic simpleton he usually plays in comedies. But in Funny People, George is a fully realized character, warts and all. For a long time, George doesn’t seem able to learn anything from his near-death experience. He appreciates rationally that he should reconnect with his family and cultivate some meaningful relationships with people who don’t work for him, but he just doesn’t seem to know how to go about it.
Eventually, George latches onto the idea of fixing what he feels was his greatest mistake: cheating on his old girlfriend, Laura (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife). She is now married with children, but has fears that her husband (Eric Bana, whose blustery bonhomie belies some core dickishness) is cheating on her. George mistakes his happiness for the right thing to do, and decides that he and Laura should be together, and he must save her from her philandering husband. She allows herself to indulge her old feelings for George, and to believe that he has grown.
There are a lot of easy and clichéd ways this situation could play out, but luckily Apatow isn’t interested in them, and the situation doesn’t quite play like traditional romantic comedy. The movie shows that these characters both need a change in their lives, but doesn’t necessarily suggest that being together is that change.
The film feels wonderfully familiar and lived-in and personal for Apatow. But that does sometimes translate into it being meandering and discursive, and a second half that may feel only marginally connected to the first. Excessive length has always been a problem for Apatow’s films, but it always seemed like Apatow just turned the camera on and let his actors tell dick jokes until the film ran out. Here, it seems more like Apatow’s imagination running wild with things he felt the need to cram in. But even at an overstuffed 146 minutes, there isn’t anything that demands to be cut, and the movie never drags.
Despite the truly staggering number of dick jokes, Funny People shows a depth and maturity only hinted at in Apatow’s previous films. Apatow proves here that he can remain very funny while also having rich characters and complex emotions, and hopefully he will continue to reach deeper in his future films.