Sunday, August 2, 2009
Some Funny People
Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls.
There! That might give you some idea of the tedium of the countless references to balls throughout Funny People, “the third film of Judd Apatow.” Are testicles that funny?
That’s the first thing you have to get through in order to reach the core of this story. Then you have to hang in there through the bland opening scenes that introduce three aspiring comedians/actors who live together in an apartment in L.A. – Ira (Seth Rogen), Leo (Jonah Hill), and Mark (Jason Schwartzman). These scenes seem to exist solely to showcase Apatow’s typical crude humor regarding balls, penis size, banging chicks, and anal sex. Pretty much all of this humor, which seems tiredly and routinely delivered, falls flat. Things don’t start working here until the film develops its central, serious story: George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a famous comedian and actor at the height of his popularity, learns that he is dying of leukemia. This launches him into a soul-searching re-assessment of his life and a drive to use his time well by returning to stand-up comedy, which involves hiring Ira as a joke writer and general assistant. What follows is a grave, touching, witty central story that explores themes of death and the preciousness of life; the allure of fame; mentorship; friendship; and redemption for past wrongs.
As Ira, Seth Rogen sensitively develops a believable character, an innocent individual in search of identity as he pursues his passion for comedy. It is within the parameters of George and Ira’s relationship and the world through which they move that the film achieves a sense of humor and a heart. Regarding Adam Sandler as George Simmons, I pretended I didn’t know anything about Sandler or his career, which is mirrored by Simmons’s career. What I saw, then, was an interesting story about the gains and losses of fame and the pursuit of creativity, a storyline that always fascinates me. The film effectively portrays how hard it must be to get up on stage in front of a demanding audience. Your goal is to elicit laughter, but you need the strength to endure the silence if the jokes fizzle. As for this Adam Sandler: he’s not a great actor, but he does a commendable job in this middle portion of film. We feel his cynicism about life and his doubts about past decisions.
Then Apatow’s epic comedy turns from a serious analysis of fame and fortune into a more standard comic romp about the importance of family as George, having learned that he may not die, tries to undo the worst mistake of his life by winning back Laura (Leslie Mann), his former lover who is a married woman with two daughters. This turns into a lengthy contest over Laura between George and Clarke, Laura’s philandering Aussie husband, (Eric Bana), and it feels like we’re watching an entirely different film. When Clarke returns home unexpectedly from a business trip, I cringed, hoping he wouldn’t invite George and Ira to stay the night – thus prolonging this digression – but he does, and they stay, and it goes on.
This film-within-the-film includes some nice jokes, many of them involving the kids: Mable and Ingrid , played by Apatow’s daughters, Maude and Iris. There’s a fun reference to The Deer Hunter and good-natured humor about kids and parenting. This portion also contains the source of the best laughs in the whole film: watching dogs licking peanut butter off the kids’ faces. Eric Bana is also rather entertaining playing a parody of the cocky Aussie who loves violent Aussie football but also his kids. But this long final chapter gets somewhat slapstick and obvious in its message, and it detracts from the poignancy and thematic development of the film’s graver central story.
I’m not a big Adam Sandler fan, and I’m not a big Judd Apatow fan, but I enjoyed watching most of this movie. I wish the film had kept its focus on George Simmons’s self-examination of his life and career, and his mentor relationship with Ira, but there was enough to take me through the long final chapter, and I left feeling fairly well entertained.