After almost two decades of making people laugh, writer/director Judd Apatow wants to be taken seriously. Well, somewhat seriously. He'll never fully give up the nonstop references to penises and other private parts, but ever since hitting it big with The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, the latest savior of cinematic funny business has yearned to explore the more dramatic underpinnings of the human condition -- and he's bringing old buddy and former roommate Adam Sandler along for the ride. It's just too bad then that 2009's Funny People is so unbalanced. There's two-thirds of a great film here. Sadly, the last act almost destroys everything that comes before.
When he learns that he has a rare form of leukemia, superstar comedian George Simmons (Sandler) decides to take stock of his sheltered life. Frequenting his old stand-up stomping grounds, he runs into wannabe jokester Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). He takes an instant shine to the lad, and offers him the opportunity to write some material for an upcoming appearance. When Simmons scores with the new bits, he makes Ira his new assistant. As the two continue to forge an unlikely friendship, Simmons decides to seek out an old flame, actress-turned-married-mom-of-two Laura (Leslie Mann). He hopes to rekindle their once-promising romance. While she is willing, her hunky Australian husband Clarke (Eric Bana) puts a crimp in their possible reunion. Article continues below
Nepotism is a nasty thing, especially if you're Funny People. Judd Apatow may be a great husband and a good father, but casting real life wife Leslie Mann as the object of desire for a somber Sandler may be the biggest mistake the fledgling filmmaker has ever made. It definitely messes with this otherwise fantastic film. It's not that Mrs. Apatow is bad. She actually brings a ditzy glamour to her Tinseltown bit-player persona. But her appearance comes after almost 100 minutes of amazing insider satire, the soul-eating darkness of a life in entertainment accented with an almost endless stream of scatology and perfect pop culture quips. Dropping a scattered, stillborn romance into the middle of this laser-like look at the perks and pitfalls of celebrity argues against such familial favoritism.
Funny People is far from a failure, though. Sandler, in full blown self-effacing mode, mocks his creative canon (the best bit -- a man-as-baby farce known as Re-Do) and his affinity for goofy voices -- even the "anything for a paycheck" appearances of his later career. He's not afraid to look bad, to act bitter, and take out his insecurities on everyone he meets. Sure, he always softens the cynicism with a well-timed putdown, but Simmons is someone who is clearly hurting inside. Apatow isn't forging new ground here -- fame is and always will be a bitch. We didn't even need the seemingly incurable disease. The interactions with an equally effective Rogen offer enough insight to see that Simmons is clearly out of touch with what it means to be human.
And for most of the running time, we are eager to follow their exploits. While underutilized, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman are wonderful as Rogen's sitcom star roommates. Similarly, Aubrey Plaza and Aziz Ansari are great as fellow comics looking to break out. Even Wu-Tang Clan member RZA is terrific as Ira's deli co-worker. In fact, had the movie stopped with our heroes discovering some truths about each other and working their way toward a lasting interpersonal bond, Funny People would be great. Not classic, but a highly inventive and entertaining look at the fears and tears of a clown. The arrival of the Laura subplot late in the game sends things careening out of control, but this is still a top quality comedy, with plenty of laughs and some interesting ideas. Sadly it looks like Judd Apatow's bid for respectability will have to wait until he can separate his home life from his sense of humor.