Monday, August 03, 2009

Sad Clowns

They're two of those unfortunate truisms about show business: funny people always want to be taken seriously, and when the cameras are off and the crowds have gone home, those same people who make us laugh are often very unhappy people. Trying to understand the off-stage life of stand-up comics has been a longtime fascination of movies and television, and with the exception of Seinfeld, I can't think of too many other movies or TV shows that have been as funny when the comic wasn't performing. (Punchline, anyone?)

The latest such portrait, Funny People, continues this idea. In the film, George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a successful comic actor (and the star of such low-brow films as MerMan and Re-Do, the latter featuring his head on an infant's body), who learns he has a rare terminal blood disease. Depressed, lonely, and vulnerable, he starts to lash out on stand-up stages. It's at one such gig that George meets an up-and-coming comedian, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who isn't very good, but shows promise. George hires Ira to be his assistant, writer, and friend, and the two begin to forge a relationship.

Ira's "friendship" helps reveal just how selfish George has been over the years and how little connection he actually has with other people. As there always is, there is a girl who got away: Laura (Leslie Mann). Thinking he's dying, George reaches out to her and the two become friends again. Then, when George learns that the experimental meds he's been taking have actually worked (not a spoiler if you've seen the trailer), he decides to pursue the now-married-with-children Laura and win her back. Will this second chance at life (and love) redeem George and lead to happiness?

Written and directed by Judd Apatow, the man behind the very funny The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Funny People isn't a comedy per se as much as it is Apatow's attempt to be deep and serious. As such, you won't find a whole lot to laugh at here. In fact, given how much time George spends wallowing in his unhappiness (the whole first half of the movie), you might actually find yourself wondering why the film was called Funny People in the first place. The film is overly long (some might say endless) and almost like two different movies in one. Clearly, in his attempt to make something higher-quality, Apatow overdid it a bit, and needed a better editor (both on his screenplay and the movie itself).

In front of the camera, I wouldn't say anyone gives their best performance here. It's not that Sandler can't handle a more serious role (check out Reign Over Me or Punch-Drunk Love for proof of that), but he and Rogen and the rest of the cast just don't seem to know what to make of the material, and they sort of muddle through. It's a shame, because given the film's pedigree — in addition to the top-line cast, there are cameos from some comedy greats, and two very amusing bits with James Taylor and Eminem — you expect more.

Ultimately, though, Funny People is a misstep for Apatow. It's not that the film isn't funny enough, it's just that it doesn't really accomplish its goals of providing new insights or creating likable characters. I hope that with his next film Apatow will return to form. I'm giving Funny People a C+.



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