Adam Sandler for Best Actor? No joke, I think the guy deserves serious consideration for his complex, nuanced, and fearless work in Judd Apatow’s Funny People.
He plays George Simmons, a comedian who rose from small nightclub standup to global success by making the kind of low-brow films where he plays a Merman or a man-baby in diapers. (It’s tempting to say that George is an alternate universe version of Sandler—Sandler without the humanizing influence of his wife and kids. But that’s part of what makes Sandler's performance so fearless—people will inevitably compare him to George, who’s pretty much a dick.)
George is a self-loathing narcissist (they seem to specialize in that particular oxymoron in Hollywood), who lives alone in a giant mansion, beds a series of faceless groupies, and waits for his next script to roll in. George’s hedonistic, unexamined life gets a jolt when he is diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. He’s past the point where chemo or radiation can do him any good, so doctors start him on a radical drug treatment. Mostly, they tell him to prepare to die.
As dying people often do, George begins to reflect on his life and when he was happiest. That was definitely when he was doing standup and dating aspiring actress Laura (Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann). So he wanders into the comforting environs of a comedy club where he meets the sweet and schlubby Ira (Seth Rogen), a small-time comedian who lives in an apartment with his two more successful roommates—Leo (Jonah Hill), who has achieved YouTube notoriety with a comic montage of his mugging alongside adorable kittens and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), who is the lead in a horrible sitcom called Yo, Teach! (All of the little bits of pop culture mimesis in this film are spot on, including scenes from George’s dumb movies and our painful, but believable glimpses atYo, Teach!)
George confides to Ira about his illness—he purposely chose a man he barely knew (Ira cries, which is hardly the reaction George was looking for)—and hires him as a joke writer and personal assistant. They begin to work together, bonding over comedy, but the nature of their relationship is clear—George is the boss. George is funnier (probably true), George gets all the good material, George gets his first pick of the groupies (not that Ira would be able to close the deal anyway), and George needs to be coddled like a baby (Ira has to sit by his side while he falls asleep).
“You’re my best friend and I don’t even like you,” George says at one point to Ira, who nods understandingly.
Among the many things Funny People does right is show the special kind of camaraderie among comedians. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Aristocrats, you know that the world of stand-up is inhabited by bright, twitchy neurotics who take extreme risks on stage (it’s kind of like the X-Games for nerds). There is fierce competition, but there is also a brotherhood. It’s no surprise, then, that when George finally does decide to disclose his illness to friends, it’s his old standup buddies he turns to first. (The film features a succession of cameos by the likes of Andy Dick, Paul Reiser, and Sarah Silverman.) And it is not incidental to note that Funny People is the first film I’ve ever seen about comedians that is actually funny. (I’m talking to you, Punchline.)
Funny People is about life and death, regret and redemption, but at its heart, it’s a buddy film. Ira learns how to be a better comedian with George’s help and George learns how to be a better man thanks to Ira. (Rogen is so appealing as the wide-eyed protegee that I’m almost prepared to forgive him for the monstrosity that was Observe and Report.)
Funny People does go astray briefly late in the second half, when George visits his ex-girlfriend Laura in San Francisco and meets her hunky Aussie husband (Eric Bana) and two precocious little girls (played by Apatow’s own precocious little girls, Maude and Iris Apatow.) There are some pivotal plot points unfurled here, but the whole episode feels flabby; it could’ve been condensed quite easily. (The film clocks in at a too-long 146 minutes.) And because this particular part of the film is an Apatow family affair, it seems more than a wee bit indulgent.
Still, much as Funny People is a breakthrough for Sandler, it may even be more of a breakthrough for Apatow, who has only directed two other films (Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and has primarily served as a kind of den father to a group of underdog, hyper-articulate, mostly Jewish comic actors. Funny People reminded me of the best work by filmmaker James Brooks (Terms of Endearment)—insightful, humane, and laugh-out-loud funny. We’ve always known how clever Apatow was, but we didn’t know that he could do something like this. Sorry Judd, there’s no turning back now.