"Funny People," the story of a famous comedian who has a near-death experience, is a film that is noble in its intent but abysmal in its execution. Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Leslie Mann star in director Judd Apatow's picture that has too many issues and too many characters.
It’s great to be Judd Apatow – and he’s not about to let you forget it. Of course, if I were married to the lovely Leslie Mann, had two adorable daughters, and counted Adam Sandler as one of my oldest, dearest friends, I’d want to flaunt it, too. But unlike Apatow, I wouldn’t make you pay $10 to endure the nearly 2 1/2 hours of incessant name-dropping that is “Funny People.”
OK, I get it, the king of raunchy comedy has a lot of big-name pals. And yes, I’m jealous. But I’m most definitely not entertained.
Not even close.
That’s sad, because this self-gratifying exercise focusing on the writer-director’s struggle with mortality had the potential to be something special for both Apatow, looking to mature beyond the sophomoric themes of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” and Sandler (Apatow’s old roomie), trying to make amends for a career wasted on lowbrow, high-profit junk like “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.”
While their efforts are noble, the execution is abysmal as the film struggles to locate the right tone for the movie’s odd mix of slapstick and introspection. Even more distracting are all the cameos by the likes of Eminem, James Taylor, Sarah Silverman, Andy Dick, Ray Romano, etc., as Apatow indulges his need to show us how many famous friends he’s amassed over his 41 years.
That group includes, of course, Sandler, who does double duty here, serving as a surrogate for both Apatow and himself in a story about a famous comedian whose cancerous blood (he has a rare form of leukemia) causes him to re-evaluate his often cancerous behavior.
That’s a tall order for any actor, but particularly for one as minimally accomplished as Sandler, who, with the exception of “Punch-Drunk Love,” has looked overmatched in more serious fare like “Spanglish” and “Reign on Me.”
Those were cakewalks, though, compared to his struggles with Apatow’s yo-yo of a script, which requires him to be a jerk one moment and charming and reflective the next – often within the same scene.
As George Simmons, a stand-up comedian made rich by a lucrative but under-achieving movie career, all Sandler really had to do was play himself. And as such, it should have been easy for him to convey all the joys, fears and loneliness fame entails.
Yet, he consistently labors to get to the heart of what makes George tick. Only when he’s opposite a vastly slimmed-down Seth Rogen, another Apatow crony, does he register as anything more than an enigmatic lump.
Credit those few sparks to Rogen’s ability to play on the pathetic nature of his character, Ira, a wannabe stand-up comedian who gets the break of a lifetime when George improbably snatches him from the deli counter and puts him to work as his chief joke writer.
What George really wants from Ira is companionship; or more to the point, someone to continually tell him how great he is as his final days melt away. He needs that because despite all the women, money and adoration, George has no real friends. Awwwh!
He also develops a sudden need to hookup again with the love of his life in Mann’s Laura, who left him years ago when she discovered him cheating on her.
So, where does all of this lead? Absolutely nowhere.
The main problem, beyond Sandler, is that Apatow has no idea of what he wants his film to be about. So he throws in a little bit of everything, from a behind-the-scenes look at the world of stand-up comedy to a deconstruction of a bored, insular entertainer who needed a death sentence to learn how to live.
Little of it works, and even less of it makes sense, especially after a ridiculous plot twist kicks in about halfway through. Far be it from me to reveal what it is, but if you’ve seen the film’s trailer, which gives the entire movie away, you probably already know.
And it’s a titanic of a contrivance; one that not only stalls what little momentum the story had, it also opens the gates for a tedious third act in which George and Ira head to Marin County to make nice with Laura and her two adorable daughters played by, who else, Apatow and Mann’s real-life daughters, Iris and Maude.
The only thing keeping that final hour remotely tolerable is Eric Bana, who breezes in like a gust of fresh Australian air as Laura’s philandering husband, Clarke, a macho meathead who loves his Fosters and “footie.” Who knew the Incredible Hulk was so funny?
Still, he’s much too little too late to save a picture that has too many issues and too many characters (Jason Schwartzman, Jonah Hill and Aubrey Plaza also pop in and out as members of Ira’s small circle of friends) for Apatow to shape into the hilarious, heartfelt movie he envisioned.
Heck, he doesn’t even get the stand-up right, failing to adequately explore the duplicity, the competitiveness and the jealousy that exists between comedians. Had he exploited that stuff more thoroughly, “Funny People” might have ended up being more of a zinger instead of a joke hopelessly in search of a punchline.
FUNNY PEOPLE (R for language and sexual situations.) Cast includes Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman. Written and directed by Judd Apatow. 2 stars out of 4.
The Patriot Ledger