It may surprise people to learn, but Funny People is only Judd Apatow’s third film as director. His recent influence has been so pervasive over the comedic landscape that any given month sees a whole slew of Apatow-like comedies released; crude tales of men suffering through arrested development and the unfortunate women they encounter. Funny People is a significant departure from his previous work though, as amidst the profanity this time he has something to say. Sex was very much the theme of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but it is issues of morality that dominate the proceedings here.
Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a famous actor who learns he may be dying of a rare blood disease. Unsurprisingly, this revelation leads to all manner of introspection, and unhappy with the isolated existence fame has given him, George resolves to improve his life, starting by reconnecting with his roots as a stand-up comic, and with the girl (Leslie Mann) that got away. Sandler will rightly draw plaudits for his nuanced performance, but Seth Rogen is truly superb, showing a vulnerable side to himself previously hidden as the aspiring comic Ira who Sandler takes under his wing. Though this hardly sounds like fertile ground for comedy, Apatow, like the true greats (Hicks, Pryor) can riff on any subject and find the hidden humour. If you’re going to call your film Funny People though, you’d better hope it delivers constantly, and while for the most part this does, it is far from perfect. A frankly unnecessary running time impedes the whole experience, as Apatow starts introducing new characters around the time most movies of this ilk finish, and while there are some genuinely moving moments towards the end, it never quite recovers the blissful energy of its early scenes. A truly great 90-minute film about stand up comedy instead becomes a merely good film about love and death.
It is apt that Apatow has taken his first slight misstep in a month where John Hughes sadly passed away. Hughes dominated the eighties in much the same manner as Apatow has post-millennium, and both made pathos filled comedies that did big business both sides of the Atlantic. Crucially, Hughes never directed again after Curly Sue bombed so spectacularly in 1991, and while Funny People is certainly no disaster, Apatow may need to take a long look at himself if he intends to have the career longevity that at one point seemed inevitable. I pray this doesn’t mark the point in his career where he makes a Woody Allen-esque transition into a “serious” filmmaker. In Ancient Greece comedy and tragedy were viewed as completely separate genres, and no play ever merged the two. Perhaps they should stay that way, or perhaps we should be grateful that a filmmaker so successful is prepared to take such risks. Either way, next time I recommend more Funny and less People.
Director: Judd Apatow
Cast: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Adam Sandler
Runtime: 145 Minutes