Midway through the new Judd Apatow film, Funny People, Eminem in a cameo appearance admonishes a leukemia-suffering George Simmons (Adam Sandler): Your best move would simply be to die. Apatow might have applied that piece of advice to the film itself.
Like Simmons, Apatow, writer-director of comedic hits The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, has had a successful run. And through Simmons, Apatow gives us a character who, in the face of death, delivers a compelling performance. Having reached that point, neither Apatow nor Simmons has any idea what to do next.
That’s too bad. After a first half that provides a complex portrait of a lonely funny man forced to confront just how lonely he is, Funny People sours as it becomes preoccupied with delivering deep thoughts about the meaning of life. The plot conception and writing in this latter half spoil a fine performance by Sandler, who calls to mind his surprisingly effective dramatic work in Punch-Drunk Love.
As the film begins, Simmons is living off past success, particularly his work in popular, mindless films such as Merman, in which he plays a half-man, half-fish, and Re-Do, in which his character transforms into a baby. Living in an enormous mansion, he has fame, wealth, and popularity with women.
During one of his occasional stand-up performances, Simmons witnesses the act of a thus-far-failed comedian, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). Ira lives with his two friends Leo (Jonah Hill), another struggling comic, and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), who has landed a starring role in a Saved By the Bell sort of show called Yo Teach. (As the lone female in the group — aspiring comic Daisy — Aubrey Plaza gives the best performance in the bunch, largely because it is so understated.) As is Apatow’s habit, there is a great deal of male sexual humor, and it’s emphasized even more than usual here because of the focus on stand-up comics whose routines are largely about their own private parts. (The film certainly earns its R rating.) But even here there are apparently some limits. Simmons warns Ira that the topics of his stand-up set seem designed to keep any woman from ever accepting a date with him.
Much of the film is about male friendship. Apatow does a decent job of showing how the arrested development of young men, evident in their penchant for the humor of early adolescence, is an ongoing source of bonding between them. It is also an obstacle to mature friendship, something males desire but have no clue how to articulate or achieve.
The focus in Funny People is on the burgeoning of an unlikely friendship between George and Ira. To George, Ira is at once a kind of personal assistant or lackey and an apprentice in the art of comedy. When George, who has kept his medical condition from everyone, finally tells Ira about his leukemia, Ira balks and asks, “Why would you tell me?” To which Simmons replies, “Because I don’t know you.”
In perhaps the movie’s best scene, George sings a song to the audience about himself, about how “George will be gone” and he “won’t miss you.” The scene operates on a number of levels. It is an honest expression of the comedian’s simultaneous need and scorn for the audience, which is such an easy target for his cheap material. For George’s audience, ignorant of his ailment, the performance is funny, but has a tone that is slightly discomforting. For the film audience, the song is a plea, on George’s part, for something more than hollow fame, even as his articulation of that desire pushes others away. It is also impossible not to think here of Sandler’s own singing skits for Saturday Night Live.
But around the midpoint, the film begins to focus on George’s attempt to reconnect with Laura (Leslie Mann), the only woman he ever loved, the woman who, after he cheated on her, left him and is now married with two daughters. The turn doesn’t derail the story line, since the sub-plot stems from Simmons’s attempt to come to terms with his past. (As he says in his stand-up routine, “The ones that got away. Guys have those . . . and so do serial killers.”) Rather, the tone and mood shift considerably. This poorly written, bloated segment makes contrived attempts to increase the dramatic intensity and to deliver meaning-mongering moral lessons. In this section, the histrionic acting, especially that of Eric Bana as Laura’s Australian husband, is just awful.
The film needed to be more subtle and darker than it ends up being. Unlike Punch-Drunk Love, a drama that successfully deployed Sandler’s peculiar personality traits, Funny People is a lost opportunity, for Sandler and especially for Apatow.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.