Everyone can tell a joke, but only a select few can do it well. It’s a genuine art form and it requires complete care and attention from the comedian from beginning to end. The setup is essential; draw the audience in, give them a couple of giggles along the way and keep them from guessing how it’ll turn out. But no matter how long your setup goes for, you’ll eventually have to deliver that punch line. And if you can’t stick the landing, you’ve got no business telling jokes. If timing is everything in comedy, someone has stolen Judd Apatow’s watch. The writer/director of Funny People has stuffed his latest film full of everything he finds amusing, from penis-jokes to home-videos of his children. Like an over-eager prop-comic, he’s desperate to show off his wares without much appreciation for the audience’s patience. And believe me, he tests it.
Now, that’s not to say Funny People is a bad movie. In fact, I would say there is a truly great movie tucked within the film’s 147 minute running time. There were occasions where I laughed louder and more heartily than in any other film this year. It also features stellar performances from Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, the latter displaying his new svelte physique. Seeing the formally chubby comedian so slim might be jarring for the audience at first, who may wonder where all his fat has gone to. Well I’ll tell them: he gave it to Apatow to pad out the film.
Adam Sandler plays a comedian called George Simmons, a former stand-up comic who has spent the past fifteen-years starring in truly unfunny high concept comedies, collecting paycheck after massive paycheck for increasingly terrible work. Ahem. Anyway, George discovers that he has a rare form of leukaemia that is slowly killing him. With the hand of death slowly reaching out, George reflects on the life he has led and is crippled by regret. Why did he make all those terrible movies? Why did he turn his back on his family and friends? And how could he let the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann aka Judd’s wife), slip away?
Before he carks it, George decides to return to the stand-up circuit. He realises after one particularly disastrous gig that he may need some help getting back his comic mojo. Enter Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an inexperienced yet talented stand-up with the stage presence of a puppy caught mid-urination. George hires Ira to be his PA; a job which includes writing his comic material and carrying the burden of George’s secret illness. As George and Ira’s friendship grows so to do their professional careers and personal lives. With the looming threat of death ever present, George finally understands what it means to be alive and starts to appreciate everything he has, as well as all he has lost. And then a funny thing happens. George gets better. And then it all goes to hell.
From the first frame we are aware that this is not going to be a regular Judd Apatow film. The auteur behind The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up has hired Academy Award-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List) to shoot the picture, and it shows. The film feels less crisp than his previous works and more cuddly; ironic considering that it features some of the most abrasive characters in the Apatow-canon. Perhaps the director just wanted to display his gorgeous wife in the best possible light. Leslie Mann is so adoringly lit in this film it almost feels as if Janusz might have the hots for Mrs. Apatow. Of course, the poor cinematographer is simply acting out his boss’ orders and the director is intent on making the audience fall in love with his wife. A sweet sentiment, but it kills his movie.
As the focus of the film shifts away from George and Ira’s friendship and towards George’s relationship with Laura, Funny People enters a rut from which it never recovers. Eric Bana tries valiantly to pump life into the final act as Laura’s brutish Australian husband Clark, but it is too little too late. Characters and storylines established in the first hour-and-a-half are almost completely abandoned as George attempts to win back Laura, meet her daughters (Maude and Iris Apatow) and fend off her husband. The whole ‘casting the Apatow daughters’ also feels played out; we saw this exact thing done in Knocked Up, where it was executed far better. In fact, the director cribs a lot from his previous comedies. It’s as if Apatow tried to deliver a greatest hits package, but instead it feels like he’s made an overly earnest rip-off of his older works.
Judd Apatow asks one central question in Funny People: what if someone learnt nothing from a near-death experience? It’s an interesting query and ripe for comic and dramatic mining. However, (and as a huge Judd Apatow fan, I can’t believe I’m about to say this) I don’t think Judd is the man for the job. It feels as if the director doesn’t quite understand the weight of his own question. His exploration of this theme is incredibly mishandled; the film’s climax and resolution is jammed into the last ten minutes of this two-and-a-half-hour film. The pacing is shockingly uneven and the film shudders to an end in a truly anti-climactic fashion instead of a life-affirming or even satisfying way.
But, I cannot end this review on a negative note, even if the picture doesn’t exactly end on a positive one. There is enough great material throughout Funny People that make it better than most-Hollywood comedies, especially those aimed at adults (I’m looking at you The Ugly Truth). Sandler gives a mature and bracingly honest performance that never feels false. He and Rogen (at his charming best) carry the film even when their director lets them down. The real scene stealers are Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman as Rogen’s roommates; fellow comics who are either struggling or thriving in the Los Angeles comedy scene. The chemistry between the three of them is electric. Watching them bicker on screen is one of the great joys I’ve had in a cinema this year. Funny People may be deeply flawed, but at least it has an accurate title.