The third directorial effort from Judd Apatow (following 2005's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin
" and 2007's "Knocked Up
"), "Funny People" is clearly his most personal and ambitious film to date. The ruthless, but also communal, milieu of stand-up comics living in Los Angeles is a subject Apatow is intimately familiar with, and it is this knowledge that aids in the picture's frequent unforced authenticity. Where the filmmaker goes wrong is in his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. He is so in love with the words he has written and the characters he has created that he has lost all sight of the bigger picture and the main story he wants to tell. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, "Funny People" is needlessly over-bloated and lacks focus, lumbering from one scene and subplot to the next without any sense of urgency or forward-motion. The extra time spent watching it ultimately only serves to call further attention to its many flaws.
From afar, George Simmons (Adam Sandler) seemingly has it alla successful acting career, adoring fans, millions of dollars at his disposal, a gorgeous mansion overlooking the Pacific, a revolving door of beautiful one-night-standsbut a trip to the doctor and the grave news that he has a rare, probably fatal, form of leukemia suddenly puts things into perspective. George looks at the life he has led and the selfish choices he has made and doesn't like what he sees. His one true love, Laura (Leslie Mann), is now married with children, living hours away in Marin County. He has all but alienated his parents and sister. He has no real friends to speak of.
As George embarks on medicinal treatments that have an eight percent chance of working, he ends up hiring struggling young comedian and deli worker Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to act as his assistant. Working for George has its plussesthe pay, the chance to write stand-up material for himand its minuseshe's stubborn and self-involved, prone to mood swingsbut Ira gradually begins to build personal respect for George as the two form an unlikely bond. As for George, he hopes to mend his broken ways before it's too late, and that includes making his feelings known to Laura.
"Funny People" has a few laughs, to be sure, but the tone is more reflective than the title might suggest. As in 2002's "Punch-Drunk Love
" and 2004's "Spanglish
," Adam Sandler is playing a less zany character than his typical onscreen personasGeorge Simmons, we sense, is a loose version of Sandler himself, at least before he married and had childrenand gets ample chance to flex his dramatic muscles as George must face his own mortality. He also is forced to deal with the regrets he has about his past, and his journey to becoming a better man. This is all well and good for the first ninety minutes, even if it must contend with several side stories and loads of other supporting characters, from Ira's roommates, fellow stand-up comic Leo (Jonah Hill) and rising sitcom actor Mark (Jason Schwartzman), to an aspiring comedienne hailing from Delaware whom Ira has eyes for, Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), to more cameo appearances than you can shake a stick at. All of these people are interesting in their own right, but when the film follows them for occasional stretches it comes off as lugubrious padding when no padding is needed.
Eventually, George receives great news: the treatments have seemingly worked and his cancer has disappeared for the time being (this is not a spoiler, since it was blatantly given away even in the earliest trailers). In a bid to win back Laura, who is unhappy in her marriage to the philandering Clarke (Eric Bana), George drags Ira along with him to Northern California. George and Laura consummate their feelings for each other, Laura's children, Mable (Maude Apatow), and Ingrid (Iris Apatow), are introduced, and then, much to everyone's surprise, Clarke returns home from his business trip. All of this and what ensues feels tacked-on. That this plot detour also goes nowhere is calamitous to the final outcome. It is forty-five minutes of material that could have been completely excised from the finished product and it would make no difference (the touching earlier scenes with Laura in the first half fulfill the same purpose, and her character would have been better to disappear after them). The longer Laura sticks around, the more of a disservice writer-director Judd Apatow does to her; by the end, she has revealed herself to be as self-centered and frustrating as George is when he promptly resorts back to his old ways.
The cast, at least, is not at fault. Adam Sandler (2008's "Bedtime Stories
") digs into George, a fully-developed character whose ego does not always paint him in the most desirable light. His unsentimental portrayal is worth commending, and a wonderful opening credits sequence of real-life home video footage of him prank-calling people with comedian friends, circa the late-'80s/early-'90s, helps to add shape and background to the role. As Ira, a young guy still waiting for his big break in the business, Seth Rogen (2009's "Observe and Report
") is irresistibly charming; his is probably the most likable character in the film, not yet changed and molded by the dark allures of Hollywood. In a lot of ways, this is more Ira's story than it is George's.
As Laura, Leslie Mann (2009's "17 Again
") effectively essays the girl that got away, and is most winning when she is fawning over two daughters she is proud of and clearly loves. It is not the actress' fault that her sizable part is relatively superfluous and could have easily been whittled down to two scenes. Jonah Hill (2008's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall
") is comfortable in his usual self-deprecating mode as Leo, while Jason Schwartzman (2007's "The Darjeeling Limited
") brings some nice moments of compassion and self-doubt to Mark, who tends to leave his fat paychecks around the apartment so Ira and Leo will see them. Finally, Aubrey Plaza (TV's "Parks and Recreation") is a standout as Daisy, bitingly deadpan and undeniably charismatic even as her character makes a date to see Wilco with Ira and then sleeps with Mark before they've had a chance to go to the concert.
Verbally profane yet tonally low-key, "Funny People" is a curious comedy-drama with an epic length and a simplistic moral. Long-winded in a way that only writer-director Judd Apatow knows how to make his summer-released rompshe clearly despises editingthe film meanders around hoping that something from its narrative will stick. What the picture's message really boils down to, though, is that money can't buy happiness, and that genuine friends should never be taken for granted. George sort of learns this by the end, though there's no telling how long it will be before he backslides once more and treats Ira like dirt. It's a conclusion he could have, and should have, reached by the 100-minute mark of the 146-minute running time. When George tells Laura late in the film, "I'm sorry I came up here, I shouldn't have come," the viewer nods in agreement. He would have been wise to stay put in Los Angeles. "Funny People" means well, but it doesn't know when to quit. Once Judd Apatow realizes that less is sometimes emotionally and substantively more, he and his films will be all the better for it.