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Funny People

Imagine a world where Adam Sandler is a famous and ludicrously rich comedian. (I’ll give you a minute.) Now imagine he’s diagnosed with a severe, nearly-guaranteed-to-be-terminal disease and is forced to reexamine his life and the decisions he’s made about his personal relationships and the resulting isolation. Now imagine that, after squaring up his affairs and coming to terms with his life, the experimental drugs he was prescribed actually work and he’s given a second chance at life. Lastly, imagine that his attitude regresses and then the story goes on for ANOTHER ENTIRE HOUR. I give you Funny People, a really good movie that very nearly wears out its welcome.

Funny People is the third movie written and directed by Judd Apatow and is essentially his rumination about what makes him and his comedian friends tick. It is Apatow’s most thematically mature work to date and looks very good, making excellent use of Academy Award winning cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski.

The story follows George Marshall (Adam Sandler), a Sandler-like comedian who has become isolated in his fame and popularity. After being diagnosed with an almost-certainly fatal disease he takes the inexperienced, yet potentially funny, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) under his wing to write jokes for him and act as his assistant. George ends up examining his life and friendships to make himself a happier person and then threatens to make his way back to asshole-ery again once he learns he’s well.

The strongest, funniest, and most enjoyable section of the movie comes in the first two thirds of the almost two and a half hour running time. This section deals largely with Ira’s efforts as a struggling comedian along side his other actor and comedian friends and roommates (Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill) and his relationship with George.

Sandler gives a captivating performance as George. He gives the character enough bitterness, resentment, and depth to make him interesting, but not so much as to make him repugnant. Each of his selfish, resentful outbursts has the undercurrent of desperately wanting companionship. It’s a tight line that Sandler walks well.

The fact of the matter is that all the growth among characters in the movie is in small, almost imperceptible steps, though the subtleties are well-played. Overall there’s as much character growth going on in Funny People as there is in a Chekov play.

The movie pays homage to stand-up humor and all its raunchy, insecure, fraternity-like language and behavior. (But isn’t insecurity and self-degradation the basis of so much good stand-up humor?) They talk about Dick more than a Richard Nixon tribute. They talk about the size of each other’s members more than a judging panel at a county fair. It’s funny for a while, but, as James Taylor asks Ira early in the movie, “Do you guys ever get tired of talking about your dicks?” I think yes.

I predict that if this movie takes off it will have the same effect that so many nights at the comedy club do: The “I Can Do That” Effect. If this is a big hit that everybody ends seeing, a common occurrence among Apatow movies, get ready for some pretty awkward stand-up comedy at the amateur night at your local comedy club.

It’s always inexplicably fun to see so many big name stars playing themselves, and this movie has a veritable who’s who of famous comedians who must have owed Sandler or Apatow a favor or just had a few hours free on a Wednesday night. The comedian cameos run the gamut from established veterans like Paul Riser and Norm MacDonald to fresh-faced internet comedians like Bo Burnham. (He’s Bo, yo.) There’s even a hilarious appearance from the rapper Eminem, which begs the question: When Eminem tells you you’ve f’ed up big time, is that a good thing, or a bad thing?

Judd Apatow still doesn’t know what to do with female characters, but he is getting better. There are only two notable female characters in the movie. One woman, the object of Ira’s affection, Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), is a fellow aspiring comic who defends her right to sleep with guys just because they’re famous, even if she does regret it afterwards. It’s an argument for free choice, true, but it’s not exactly flattering.

The other female character, Laura (Leslie Mann), is George’s old flame who goes from coolly pushing him away to weepy acceptance when she learns he’s sick. Her indecisiveness and her desire to have it all become the engine behind the movie’s overlong and far-flung third act. Laura ends up being one of the most mature characters in the movie, but it takes her an awfully long time to get there.

This brings up what relegates Funny People to being a really good, but not great movie: Its third act. After George learns he’s well, he leaves the familiar confines of L.A. to try to win back his now-married former fiancée, Laura, who is now married to Clarke (Eric Bana), has two daughters, and is living in the Bay Area.

The audience is stuck shaking their heads at George’s actions and scratching their heads at Laura’s wishy-washy attitude toward her marriage, family, and life. Additionally, Bana’s portrayal of Clarke turns him into an easily-cuckolded, short-sighted, ultra-manly-in-a-condescending-Eastern-philosophy-sort-of-way, Australian caricature among characters that were modestly well-rounded before, but become starkly realistic by contrast. The episode works to inexplicably turn the audience against characters we’ve been coming to sympathize with and like for the past hour and half.

Funny People marks a definite step forward for Judd Apatow, has an outstanding performance from Adam Sandler (even if he is playing a ruder version of himself), and benefits from a solid supporting cast. The movie is crippled by a super-long running time and a third act that seems to change moods and works to distance the audience from characters they’d grown close to.

The flaws, however, do not come even close to ruining the experience and the movie is definitely worth a look. I’d say the fate of serious-but-not-too-serious comedy is still safe for now in the hands of the people who made this movie, even if they do tend to talk about their dicks.

A lot.

Matt Sameck

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