Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"Funny People" Review

This is just what my relationship with Judd Apatow needed. I'd fallen cyclically victim to the hype and overwhelming praise of his previous films only to have my expectations dashed, and was perhaps for the first time, actively pessimistic towards his upcoming project. The irony is that "Funny People," the director's third effort, was not the commercial success or the critical powerhouse his last two were, but stands, though flawed, miles beyond both "40 Year Old Virgin," and "Knocked Up" from a thematic standpoint.

For one, on a solely surface level, the title of the film is the first by the director to not explicitly label itself as a sex (or lack of sex) comedy. "Funny People" is less clown, more comedian. "Funny People" is Judd Apatow's comedy Bar Mitzvah, which is to say a mature, mostly logical story about real adults, though to extend the metaphor, he sings flat on a couple of those Torah passages towards the end.

The worst you can say about the film is that it's still a work of indulgence. Apatow is public enemy number one on the unnecessary running time roster, and "Funny People" clocks in at almost two and a half hours. The length would be acceptable if the atonal third act didn't relapse into the sort of pretentious dramedy that categorized his previous films, and the sequence ends up being neither compelling nor particularly funny.

But the ending is only an unfortunate blemish on what would otherwise have been a nearly perfect film. "Funny People" can hardly be said to be boring despite its length, and didn't wear me down nearly as quickly as "Transformers 2" or "Public Enemies." Apatow challenges the established filmic conventions of comedy, letting it play as more of an amusing drama than a faux-dramatic comedy.

The film stars Adam Sandler as a version of himself called George Simmons, a miserable world famous comedian and actor diagnosed with a usually-terminal offshoot of leukemia, who hires a middling young comedian (Seth Rogen) to assist him both at home and on the stage.

Sandler plays more curmudgeony than audiences might be used to, though it's a perfect foil to Rogen's absolute earnestness, and the supporting cast (Jason Schwartzman, Jonah Hill, Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari) is terrific as well. The largely self-written stand-up segments by the performers are enjoyable, and supplement the story where they could feel superfluous and halting.

"Funny People" is a warm and off-beat comedy more interesting than any of Apatow's previous work or any competitive mainstream summer comedy. It's exhilarating to see a guy on top like Apatow risk something as a filmmaker, even if he sort of takes it back at the end. What makes "Funny People" great is its realist approach to comedy from a guy who's only ever given us vaguely romantic audience-pleasers.

The film was a risk, and Apatow's only crime is not fully believing in himself as a storyteller, for falling back on a sequence that betrays the realism and the anti-jokiness that he set up for the first hundred and twenty minutes. There's nothing funny about a fake Australian accent, and there's nothing fresh about winning back the girl of your dreams.

"Funny People" is nevertheless an important comedy, and (hopefully) a stepping-stone for the director, who really just needs to find himself an editor with an iron fist.

It's fitting that the film is about second chances, as my optimism for Mr. Apatow has been reinvigorated. But if you hurt me again, Judd, I swear I'll leave.


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