By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 1, 2009)
I have good news and bad news about writer-director Judd Apatow’s Funny People. The good news is that he’s made a terrific 100 minute film. The bad news is that no one will ever get to see it without suffering through an additional 40 minutes of self-indulgence.
Adam Sandler stars as comic-turned-actor George Simmons, who has become an A-list box office draw through a series of low-brow yet successful comedy films (*cough* type casting *cough*). He lives the requisite movie star bachelor lifestyle to the hilt; soaking in public adulation, living in a Hollywood mansion with a revolving door of beautiful women, etc. His biggest daily chore is sorting through the piles of script offers. Everything in his life is going swimmingly, until the staple of every Disease of the Week Movie appears: The Results of Your Blood Test Are In scene.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the low-rent section of town, we are introduced to a trio of roommates-Ira, Leo and Mark (Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman, respectively) who are much farther down the show biz ladder. Ira and Leo are aspiring stand-up comics; Mark is an actor who has recently got his first major break with a starring role on a middling sitcom. Using their own sliding scale of success, Mark is at the top of the pyramid (he’s on TV!) and Leo has a slight lead over Ira, because he has received kudos from Budd Friedman (to fledgling L.A. comics, a “thumbs up” from the founder of the Hollywood Improv is an anointment by the Pope).
It looks like it’s going to take a miracle to give Ira’s career a boost (so he can quit that day job at the deli); in the meantime he’s just another rubber-faced no-name standing in front of a brick wall on Open Mike Night. His deux ex machina arrives when George Simmons, still reeling from the bad medical news, figures that it might be good therapy to get back to his roots and do some stage time (on a night when Ira also happens to be on the bill). George sees something in Ira’s act that appeals to him; perhaps it reminds him of himself in hungrier days. On impulse, he offers Ira a job as his P.A. It becomes apparent that what George really wants is a genuine friendship before he shuffles off to that Great Gig in the Sky.
Now it would seem that this would be enough of a setup to carry a feature length movie. For most directors. Unfortunately, Apatow’s third act, revolving around an ill-advised attempt on George’s part to rekindle a romance with The One Who Got Away (Leslie Mann) while her husband (Eric Bana) is out of town just goes on and on and on, at the lumbering pace of a brontosaur (Apatowsaurus?) plodding through a Triassic swamp, crushing all semblance of levity in its path.
There is an inordinate amount of screen time given to the two young girls who play Mann’s daughters-revealed in the credits as husband-and-wife Apatow and Mann’s kids; which gives the film a glorified home-movie vibe . Also tiresome: an endless parade of cameos, mostly from well-known comics (ironically, non-standup Eminem is the funniest). It started to remind me of those Cannonball Run films that Burt Reynolds and his pals used to do in the 1970s.
Still, there are some things I liked about the film. Although I will admit that I am not a fan , I thought Sandler was decent enough in his seriocomic role (it reminded me of his work in Punch-Drunk Love). Rogan and Sandler play well off each other, and Hill fires off some of the film’s best one-liners. Newcomer Aubrey Plaza gives a wry turn as a fellow comic that Rogan is crushing on. Torsten Voges is a scene stealer as Sandler’s German doctor; a hysterical exchange in the doctor’s office between Sandler, Rogan and Voges is an instant classic-it’s too bad that the rest of the film can’t quite match up to it.
I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the world of stand-up, because it is during those brief interludes that the film truly shines. Apatow came up from the comedy clubs, so every scene dealing with the creative process, the camaraderie, and, oh yes-the angst and the backstabbing ring absolutely true. I think he could have made a fabulous film just dealing with that subject alone.
But then again, I may be a little biased, because I used to be one of those rubber-faced no-names, standing in front of a brick wall on Open Mike Night. Wait a minute…I had a day job working at a deli, while doing stand up gigs at night. Um, excuse me (sfx knocking on computer screen) does anybody out there need a personal assistant?