Funny People (2009)

Funny People is the ne plus ultra of Judd Apatow’s style, the most dramatic of his dramedies but also the most comedy-focused (at least thematically). The longest of his long-ass movies. It’s the best Apatow movie I’ve seen, but also the most flawed and uneven.

The story centers on two comedians at mirrored arcs of their careers: one, played by Seth Rogen, is a scrappy upstart hungry for a break; the other, played by Adam Sandler, a seasoned vet long since broken by the fame and industry. Both are terrific and clearly playing autobiographical roles (Rogen perhaps looking back a few years to his pre-fame days).

It’s Sandler as comedian George Simmons that really leaves an impression. At the time (and since), the once-bracing Sandler had coasted into high-concept family comedies, his style of phoned-in hamming a money-printing brand in and of itself. Seeing Sandler playing such a lived-in character, a capital-P performance of an exhausted and lonely comedy mogul whose best life is past him, is raw and moving.

The plot revolves around Simmons being diagnosed with a terminal illness and reevaluating his life. (I swear it’s less trite than the log-line makes it sound.) He returns to the scenario where he felt most alive — the local comedy club scene, desperately seeking some spark. He finds it when Rogen’s Ira Wright roasts the dour Simmons, and Simmons offers Ira a job as a part-time joke-writer, full-time assistant and companion.

The movie uses stand-up comedy as a double-edged form of personal expression and self-actualization: One the one hand, it’s a chance for comedians to share their lives, insecurities, and beliefs about the world — an act of vulnerability. On the other hand, it’s a shield, where everything can be deflected as a joke; nothing is ingenuous or sincere. Simmons’ beloved public persona coexistent with deep isolation is the natural conclusion of that contradiction.

Funny People gets a lot of richness from including actual stand-up comedy, even when the material itself is hit-or-miss. It increases the sense that we are participating in the characters’ life experiences, the act that centrally defines them.

There are so many moments here that make me alternately choke up or crack up, but the former more than the latter; this movie is best enjoyed as a drama-with-jokes rather than a comedy. One moment in particular captures the movie’s theme so perfectly: When George has some positive news to share, first he tells his housekeeper who reacts with utter apathy, before an overjoyed Ira arrives who reacts with love. It’s such a heartbreaking, funny, touching moment that contrasts hollow, performative relationships with genuine human engagement.

The movie’s final hour pivots the story to a new scenario that introduces a domestic element otherwise absent from the movie. It’s easily the film’s weakest portion, but still fleshes out George’s character in a bittersweet way. Leslie Mann is very good as George’s ex-flame, and Eric Bana is hysterical as her high-energy husband.

It adds up to a movie that is, weirdly, more than the sum of its parts (lofty praise given its 150+ minute runtime), a moving and occasionally funny story about how being the funniest person in the room sometimes means being the saddest.

Is It Good?

Exceptionally Good (7/8)

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