Funny People reveals the dark side of Apatow comedy

I would imagine a lot of people are going to leave the theater scratching their heads after seeing Judd Apatow’s latest film, Funny People. The trailers led us to believe it was going to be a funny and heartwarming tale about a mega-famous comedian/star (now doomed with a terminal illness) who tries to reconnect with people by helping out a young comedian and trying to rekindle an old relationship.

The main thing audiences won’t expect is how heavy it is. Any synopsis, trailer or TV spot can tell you the main plot of the film, but you’re probably heading to the theater in hopes of laughing.

It’s easy to forget that one of the main themes of the film is coming to grips with death, and Funny People often takes a very serious tone. This is not a bad thing by any means. It is actually refreshing to see how honest and non-glazed over the issue is. While many comedies might use death as a way of shaping the plot and keeping the story moving, Apatow, being both an excellent writer and director, uses it instead to shape the characters.

Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, the ill-fated superstar. Simmons (basically an alternate version of Sandler) is the star of goofy, lowbrow comedies that require him to make silly voices. Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright, a young comedian struggling to find his voice. The two happen to meet one night at a comedy club when Simmons, after learning of his rare disease, decides to perform on a whim. His set barely gets a laugh, and Wright decides to turn his set into one that comments on Simmons’. Simmons is both perturbed and impressed with Wright, and soon after asks Wright to be his assistant.

From here, the plot is basically set, and the rest of the film becomes multiple character studies. Sandler does an excellent job portraying the very flawed Simmons. There were multiple times during the film where Simmons seemingly turns into a jerk at the drop of a hat, but he is really just a man fighting a disease and struggling with the idea of dying alone.

Seth Rogen is in top form as well. Wright is an ambitious guy with great ideas, but he lacks the knowhow. His conversations with his more successful comedian roommates and his later dealings with the erratic superstar make for a character that is both genuine and interesting to watch.

Leslie Mann plays Laura, Simmons’ love interest. As always, Mann is a delight to watch, and she becomes a key part to the second half of the movie.

The real star, though, is Apatow. Just as with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, his screenplay and direction have created characters that are very real. They’re cranky, tired, ambitious, friendly, lonely, horny and spiteful. And are they funny? Actually, they are. Even after all the seriousness, Funny People is funny. Not always in a “funny ha ha” way, but also in a “funny sad” way, and a “funny-because-it’s-so-true” way.

Apatow has also done a great job of instilling a sense of nostalgia and what it means to grow older. Old footage of Sandler and Mann gives Funny People an extra feeling of authenticity and further validates the realism of the characters.

Of course, the film is not without its problems. The main issue plaguing Funny People is its runtime. Clocking in at almost 2.5 hours, Funny People is a marathon of a movie, especially by comedy standards. Though The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up also had substantial runtimes, those films were more focused on sticking to a story. Funny People, on the other hand, doesn’t mind letting you watch these characters even when nothing particularly interesting is happening, making the movie feel overly long at times.

Also, the story meanders as though it can’t decide where it wants to go, especially during the second half. This is actually extremely fitting for the characters involved, but it makes for somewhat of an awkward and slow viewing experience.

Taken for what it is, Funny People is quite good. Though it suffers from its length, it contains arguably Apatow’s most fleshed-out characters to date and focuses on interesting and mature themes like growing up and eventually dying. As long as you’re not expecting a gut-buster, Funny People is well worth your time.

FILM

OUR TAKE: *** (out of 5)

GENRE: Comedy, Drama

STARRING: Adam Sandler, Leslie Mann and Seth Rogen

DIRECTOR: Judd Apatow

RATING: R

RELEASED: July 31, 2009