We should be thankful for Judd Apatow. That sentence may seem strange to some people who find his films to be nothing different from the other raunchy comedies released every month. The thing is, they are quite different. Both The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up were very perceptive little comedies and surprised audiences with their quality. Besides maybe Wes Anderson, no comedic director has so seamlessly blended the hilarious with the poignant since John Hughes. Some folks may be unwilling to look past the dirty jokes or the foul mouths of Apatow’s characters to find the heart in his films, but after so many countless comedies with nothing to offer, people may be ready for more character-oriented film like Funny People.
The film will challenge the audience on one level or another. It is not a plain and simple comedy, but it’s not quite a drama either. For many film-makers, taking this approach could make the film uneven, but Funny People amazingly tells the story deliberately without asking the audience to laugh at any specific moment. I laughed regularly throughout the film, but only because the characters said things that I thought were funny. There aren’t any scenes played strictly for comedy, but comedy is sometimes a byproduct of the scene. It was refreshing to see a poster of the 1973 Jack Nicholson classic “The Last Detail” in Seth Rogan’s apartment. That film’s tone was similar to this one, in that they both tell a story that allows the characters an incredible amount of freedom to act naturally. There are moments when you think you can guess how a certain character will behave, only because you’ve seen so many other films in which they would behave that way, but instead they act in a way that is unique to their personality and individual circumstances.
Adam Sandler may have given his best performance as George Simmons. He plays a fellow that has let his personality decay under the stresses of being a celebrity who has more money than he knows what to do with. He plays an actor whose body of work is not unlike some of Sandler’s entries into the comedy genre (his films are brainless, money making machines that a ridiculous amount of people pay to go see.) He can be polite when he needs to and gets his picture taken with strangers, but he has developed no real personal relationships with anyone in years. When he finds out he has leukemia that will most likely kill him, he becomes bitter. He decides to go back to his roots doing stand-up comedy as an outlet for his frustration. He runs into a young, struggling comedian named Ira who is in serious need of a job. After deciding that he has a small amount of potential, George hires Ira to write jokes for him and be his personal assistant.
Seth Rogen, as Ira, plays a completely different character than he has become identified with. Ira is thoroughly naïve, innocent, and loyal. He also shows that he is extremely sensitive in one of his funniest, most touching moments when Ira just cannot keep from crying after George refuses to tell anyone else about his illness. Ira’s room-mates, played by Jason Schwartzman and Johah Hill, are both more successful than he is, and have forced him to sleep on the fold-out couch, further causing him to have an inferiority complex. At one point he exclaims to Schwartzman, “I’m not cute like you! I don’t look like Jackson Browne!” explaining his reluctance to approach women. Seth Rogen is quickly becoming quite an interesting actor to watch. He’s not just funny; he can play the other stuff too.
Leslie Mann plays Sandler’s ex-fiancé, Laura, whom he lost years ago due to his infidelities. She is now married to an alpha male named Clarke, who is played flawlessly by Eric Bana. Bana is allowed to use his natural Aussie accent for this role and steals quite a bit of scenes. Mann plays Laura as a complex character, and we believe her when she begins to fall in love with George all over again. The difficulty of her situation is expressed the best not by her words, but her tone of voice and facial expressions. On the way to an absolutely crucial conversation with her husband, she is quietly singing the theme to “CATS” by herself in the car while almost bursting into tears. Mann’s acting in this scene is a perfect example of why her character is much more than a simple love interest.
The last act of Funny People really makes the film unique as a comedy. There is still plenty of funny stuff near the end, but there are also some serious decisions being made by every single main character that could alter their lives irrevocably. One of the great things about a Judd Apatow film is that every character exists as an individual. There are no throw-away parts, and nobody seems to be playing a supporting role. Human interaction is a very hard thing to capture, but this is a real film and every conversation is played pitch-perfect. Judd Apatow is consistently showing that he knows how to tell a story and how to tell it truthfully.