Funny People is a movie I wanted to love, but just couldn’t. Judd Apatow I have a lot of affection for as a filmmaker (Knocked Up is my least favourite of his, but Freaks and Geeks is easily one of my favourite TV shows), and I generally agree with the critics who laud his ability to balance juvenile comedy with legitimate drama, though I find myself much more drawn to the drama. And his approach to Directing is one I take myself; maximum collaboration with an emphasis on improvisation.
Funny People is about Adam Sandler playing a darker version of himself, ostensibly. He lives alone and has a fundamentally meaningless existence. Anonymous sex, making mindless high-concept comedies (such as Mer-man and My Best Friend, The Robot), and famous “friends”. When he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness, he returns to his stand-up roots. When his alarmingly dark routine falls flat, up-and-coming comic Seth Rogen essentially follows his act by riffing on how dark Sandler’s routine was. Then Sandler decides to take Rogen under his wing/employ as a writer and personal assistant as he tries to figure out what the end of his life is going to look like. It’s a comedy, to be sure, but Apatow takes an intentional turn towards drama this time, and there’s some fairly dark scenes in an otherwise lighthearted look at death and fame.
There’s essentially three major plotlines that make up Funny People. There’s Sandler’s dealing with his impending mortality and his relationship with Rogen, Rogen and his comedian roommates and friends, and Sandler trying to win back his long lost love (Leslie Mann, now married with children to Eric Bana). And frankly, there’s close to enough material in all three for their own movie; I’d certainly say that Apatow could have done a full-length tale of Rogen balancing his life at home and with Sandler and a fairly economical, but separate, film about Sandler’s character at Leslie Mann and Eric Bana’s house. And that’s really the problem with Funny People.
All three plotlines are well executed, and it’s to Judd Apatow’s credit is that the world he establishes is one that I wanted to keep watching. But the movie is two and a half hours long, and as a result, it’s just… excessive. The best parts of the movie are among Apatow’s best overall, and while there’s no fluff here, per se, the final product feels like it could use a less loving edit. Maybe that’s the danger in writing such a personal project; you don’t want to leave anything out.
That’s really my only beef with the movie, but it goes without saying that a movie that’s too long is a big problem to have. The movie, however, does have it’s share of praiseworthy elements. Apatow’s shift towards a more mature tone, by and large, works. There’s no serious gross-out moments, and while it has a lot of dirty jokes, the bulk of them are in stand-up footage. Rogen and his roommates bear few resemblances to, say, Rogen and his roommates in Knocked Up (save Jonah Hill being in both). Rogen’s performance shows a lot of growth as well. As with most Apatow films, the heavy improvisation makes the performances feel more natural, and that definitely works in favour of the film this time; where the improvisations are and where scripted dialogue made the final cut only Apatow knows for sure, but the dialogue never sounds forced or “written”.
There’s a lot to like in Funny People. Subtle “moments” pop up here and there, performances are solid, and Apatow has largely jettisoned the sorts of things that would have put his career at a standstill had he just made another Knocked Up clone with the same affable manchild characters (the most childish character is also the least likable this time around) and gross-out humour. But it feels like what could have been here is better than the final product.