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Non-Review Review: Funny People

Funny People is the very definition of “self-indulgent”. It’s a series of comedians from both the big leagues – movie stars – and the smaller circles – the improv stand-up circuit – reflecting on how difficult life is for an entertainer. Be it the generalisation that showbiz types are all cynical and disconnected to the point of being anhedonic, or the observation that fame and success typically come with a high personal cost. Of course, coming from director Judd Atapow – who carved out his earlier career with comedies centred on everyman (okay, maybe “slacker”) types like Knocked-Up or The Forty-Year-Old Virgin – a film about the types of circles that he moved in was a risky venture, one which would definitely represent a move away from the “common man” appeal of his earlier films. And at least those films had the gift of brevity.

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The plot follows Adam Sandler as comedian/actor George Simmons, who sold out to make a string of horrible movies with Elizabeth Banks and Justin Long. A bit of bad news causes him to re-evaluate his life, and to spark a connection with the younger up-and-coming (although that implies movement – his life is kinda just stuck in neutral as we join him) comedian Ira Wright, played by Atapow regular Seth Rogan. The two men form an unlikely bond when Simmons hires ira as his joke writer and assistant, as they learn life lessons from one another.

The premise is interesting at least, if a little hackneyed. The sad fact is that the film doesn’t offer anything we haven’t seen or heard before in a million other ways. We all know that fame is something that comes with a high cost, and that the creative mind is typically a troubled one – liable to disconnect from its own humanity. Of course, at its most superficial level, this means the movie offers us Adam Sandler as a jackass. Hell, the movie opens with a home video montage of Sandler prank-calling various helplines. Don’t get me wrong, it used to be endearing – the staple of films like Big Daddy or Happy Gilmore. Not so much any more. Maybe the difference is that rather than being an ordinary jerkass, he has become an entitled one – it’s hard to sympathise with a guy who spends his downtime watching himself on five giant televisions.

Along the way, the movie takes time to make pot shots at the state of comedy – whether it’s commentary on the type of movies which George Simmons produces (“I don’t know why his moves aren’t funnier,” one guy remarks) or the horrible sit-coms on television (one actor, when asked if his horrible sit-com Yo, Teach! is on a kids channel, he offendedly replies, “No, it’s on NBC”) or what the unwashed masses accept as comedy (“cute kittens” on Youtube, for example). However, the flipside is that the movie doesn’t really offer much by way of contrast. The stand-up sequences aren’t exactly gut-bursting either – George’s father is portrayed a old-fashioned and conservative for suggesting his son might want to steer away from the “blue” material, but it seems like these comedians simply draw laughs by dropping swear words and making scatological references.

However, the movie takes a while before it gets where it’s going. We’re over an hour into the film before we really meet the inevitable romantic interest (she cameos early on), which changes what the movie is completely. The movie feels like two hour-and-a-quarter films mashed together to make one two-and-a-half hour film. One gets the sense that the producers could have just as easily have cut out all the scenes of various characters watching themselves and recordings of themselves and saved an hour.

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Plus the fact that – if a movie is going to be that long – it needs to really engage with its audience. The fact that the movie’s entire plot is essentially spoiled by the trailer and that it doesn’t exactly offer the viewer a reason to sympathise or understand any of the characters – most of them just seem just like unsympathetic people. The movie awkwardly zig-zags between comedy and drama, which is a tough juggling act – and one that Atapow can’t seem to pull off with the story he wants to tell.

The cast actually do a pretty decent job with the material. All the lead performers do the best to make the characters in this familiar little play seem like genuine people rather than two-dimensional carcatures. Eric Bana in particular makes the most of a small supporting turn. His character is meant to be an asshole (in fairness, virtually everybody in this film is), but he actually comes across as slightly less of a dick than George, which causes quite a bit of difficulty when we’re asked to empathise with the comedian. The fact that he is also the first character to accept his responsibility for the damage caused also undoubtedly make him slightly more engaging than George.

Funny People is a story that has been told dozens of times before – and better. That’s not to say that Atapow’s magic is completely gone – while he is quick to criticise television and movies for pandering, he panders just as much to his own pace (with profanity and immature sex jokes). While this approach made The Forty-Year-Old Virgin one of the best comedies of the last decade and made Knocked-Up a bit of light entertainment, it injects a bit of life into this film. Despite the fact that when you take away the humour and replace it with drama his man-children become tragic rather than funny, he’s still able find a bit of heart. Not enough, mind you, but just enough.

It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of talent involved here. It’s just not particularly well-told, and seems like it exists merely because the people behind it thought it was a great story, rather than because it was a great story of itself. This would be something that could be forgiven if the film was content to keep its runtime something reasonable.

6 Responses

  1. Totally agree. Hated it. So self-indulgent, self-aggrandising, self-aware. I felt like I was watching a film about Sandler/Apatow and friends show off just how cool their lives are, in a way that completely alienates anyone who isn’t involved in the film business. Therefore, alienating 99% of viewers.

    There are some good comedy bits here and there, and Sandler even shows a moment or two of acting range, but the story is all over the place, and at the end of the day it isn’t very flattering to us lemmings who watch movies but don’t make them.

  2. I liked it, even though it dragged too long and, yes, the characters are assholes.

  3. Sandler makes the film bearable even if the story doesn’t. Too bad he went right back to schlock like Grown Ups.

  4. I was quite disappointed with Funny People myself. It was like two movies fused into one with a not-that-funny stand up comedy in the first half and then some zanny rom-com in the second half. All the jokes about penises, shit and what not got tiring after a while.

  5. Funny People’s first half is great; when the bait-and-switch occurs and it focuses on George trying to win back Laura, it shit the bed with the lights on. Apatow stitched together two totally separate movies and in doing so split the harmony of his film in twain. This could have been successful either as George’s redemption story and his efforts to get Laura back, or it could have been about Ira’s relationship with George as the former builds his career and George ends his on a high note before his death. But it tries to be about both and as a result it naturally cannot end satisfactorily because the stuff we cared about– the stuff that pulled us into the movie in the first act– just gets dropped.

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