The key to a successful standup act is maintaining a good rhythm and not letting your emotions get the best of you if a single joke falls flat. A prolonged deafeningly silence is akin to a near death experience.
If Judd Apatow’s Funny People were a comedy act, which at times it practically is considering the subject matter rooted in the underworld of anonymous and glamorous standup comedy, the second half’s silence would speak volumes about the importance of maintaining that rhythm. Apatow’s emotions are his self-indulgence into a past that saw him room with a younger Adam Sandler (shown during the film’s opening credits) and a future with his real life family. As Funny People plays out, those emotions are let off their leash.
George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is the antithesis of young inexperienced comics living together played by Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman. His fortune and baggage are immense but his life empty and full of regrets, including the “one” who got away.
The role is uncannily similar to Sandler’s actual career, thrust into riches from films of marginal quality and taste. A great self-defacing gag sees Simmons’ head on a baby body for a movie called Re-Do. He’ll clearly do anything for a buck, even if it means falling victim to the dark side and emptiness of celebrity. Even though the emotional scars are clearly evident, Simmons learns he has a terminal rare form of Leukemia to unnecessarily drive the point home.
Simmons’ diagnosis brings him into contact with young comic Ira Wright (Rogen) creating an intriguing and entertaining dynamic. On one side is an irritable comic on his last legs, hoping to rekindle the good times one last time. On the other is a struggling young comedian awkwardly sampling success for the first time, a natural trait Rogen brings perfectly to the role. Rather than look at a glass half-empty like Simmons, Ira takes a glass half-full approach and soaks up everything around him, even if it means cleaning a millionaire’s toilet or hawking years of freebies on Craigslist and Ebay.
During Simmons’ and Ira’s blossoming relationship in the shadow of looming tragedy, Apatow resorts to what he knows best to pull back from an emotionally driven scene: lascivious comedy. For every five testicle jokes there are ten more penis jokes; some gut-busting funny, others redundant. He even wrote the best lines for cameos including standup veteran Ray Romano, rapper Eminem, and my personal favorite, James Taylor.
Funny People moves along at a steady pace until around the 90 minute mark when a big revelation occurs. Most comedies would be tying up any loose ends around this point, but Apatow launches Funny People down a distinctly different dramatic path. Rather than let an editor tell him “know when to say when,” Funny People digresses into “Family People.”
Apatow’s creative decisions make little sense when assessing Funny People as a whole. They make all the sense in the world when considering his motivation. The final 45 minutes are full of his real world wife Leslie Mann and their two young daughters. Leslie is not a bad actress and her role as a ditzy former actress/singer/waiter/whatever else is a fun one, but not appropriate for this film. Her character has far more screen time than Ira’s emotionless yet hilarious love interest Daisy (Aubrey Plaza) or another aspiring comic (Aziz Ansari), each shunned for the sake of playing family favorites.
Somewhere scrambled within Funny People’s excessively long two-and-a-half hour runtime is a filthy and outrageously funny comedy about camaraderie between actual “funny people” showered with the kind of humor Apatow has built an empire from. By letting his act go silent in the latter half to be taken seriously with family matters, Apatow’s Funny People strays too far from its and its creator’s comfort zone. Sadly for Apatow, the third time in the director’s chair is not a charm.
– Dan Bradley