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Funny People (2009)

WARNING: BRUSH-WITH-SPOILERS

Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” is a naturalistic comedy the way that movies about singers and dancers are naturalistic musicals. It makes sense that those guys sing and dance, and it makes sense that these guys—stand-up comics at various stages of fame in Hollywood—are funny. That’s what they do. They don’t laugh much, either. They might nod and say, “That’s good,” but they don’t laugh. We do, though. I did. Harder than at any movie I’ve seen this year.

Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a stand-up comic turned world-famous movie star, who, at the outset, learns he has a rare form of leukemia, and there’s little chance he’ll survive.

Confronted with his own mortality, he retreats to his Malibu mansion and watches, on five televisions, five versions of himself at various stages of his career. In the center image he’s young and doing stand-up comedy, and this makes him smile wistfully. The next time we see him he’s making a guest appearance at one of the local improv clubs. But his material is unfunny and solipsistic: “Who’ll make you laugh when I go?” etc. He hasn’t told anyone yet that he’s dying so maybe this is his way? Maybe he can only be serious through comedy? But it merely leaves an uncomfortable silence in the room. In true improv fashion, though, he tries to riff off that silence. “You hear that?” he whispers. “I think I can hear the freeway.” He’s pushing into the uncomfortable in search of the humorous but doesn’t find it. The amateur following him, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), whose own material isn’t working, does. He comments upon the weirdness of the George Simmons appearance, and everyone laughs, and by the bar you see Simmons’ face fall. He’s become the butt of the joke rather than its teller.

In the parking lot the two encounter each other—Simmons has been crying in his SUV—and while Ira acts the fan (“We kinda grew up on your shit”), Simmons is both complimentary and insulting, and he offhandedly offers Ira a gig writing jokes before insulting him one last time and driving off. The next day Ira’s at home. He has two roommates. Mark (Jason Schwartzman) is making big bucks on his crappy, inner-city sitcom, “Yo, Teach!,” while Leo (Jonah Hill), who had a more successful set at the improv club, is getting millions of hits on YouTube with his trojan-horse kitten videos. Meanwhile Ira is working the deli counter at Otto’s grocery store. Until George Simmons calls. George is serious about the writing gig, which he offers to both Ira and “the triple XL version of you”—Leo—but, with hardly a glance back at Leo, Ira says his friend is too busy but he’ll take it himself. He fucks Leo over, in other words. This is this world.

Ira now enters Simmons’ world, where his job is not merely to write jokes but to be Simmons’ friend. But Simmons is where he is because he’s quick and brutal, and now he’s quick and brutal and rich and famous, and used to getting his way, and Ira is none of these things. It’s a tough go. He becomes the guy who holds Simmons’ hand while he’s falling asleep; the one who, with a perfect 2:2 babe-to-Jewish-schlub ratio, winds up alone. He’s also the guy who writes Simmons’ lines for a MySpace appearance but uses the material himself when forced to open. Apparently all’s fair in love and stand-up.

And he’s the guy to whom Simmons reveals his disease. One wonders: “Doesn’t Simmons have anyone else?” The short answer is no. He’s rich in money, poor in friends. The anti-George Bailey.

The trailer makes the film’s characters out to be fairly heartwarming but they’re not. It makes it seem that Simmons’ brush with death makes him a better person but it doesn’t. After Ira enters his life, George contacts friends and family he’s lost touch with—including Laura (Leslie Mann), the girl who got away a dozen years ago. When the experimental drugs work and the disease goes into remission, he is determined to get Laura back—despite the reality of her husband, Clarke (Eric Bana), and their two girls. Like most things in life, George gets what he wants. And like most things in life, he fails to appreciate it. Laura, ready to leave her husband, shows George and Ira footage of her eldest daughter singing a song from “Cats” at a school function. While Ira is overwhelmed, George spends his time checking his blackberry. As soon as he does, we know he’s doomed. Many things happen in the interim, but this is the true reason Laura retracts her offer and stays with her husband. Why risk everything on such a selfish prick?

On the ride home George tears into Ira, and that ends that. Life returns, more or less, to where it was at the beginning. George is not sick, Laura is with Clarke, Ira is working the deli. But we do get some small reconciliation. George shows up at the deli, apologizes, and he and Ira talk stand-up. They spitball ideas. They feed off each other, and the camera pans back and the movie ends. It’s a sweet scene.

Everyone complains that Apatow’s films go on a half-hour too long, and they do, but it’s interesting why they do. Most films give us superclean plotlines. The filmmakers assume we know where the third act is going and take us there without the stickiness of life. Apatow is all about stickiness. He knows that any kind of change, particularly positive change (toward responsibility), is full of starts and stops and stutter-steps. One of the most off-handedly funny things “Funny People” gives us is the George Simmons oeuvre—crap comedies like “Merman,” “My Best Friend is a Robot” (with Owen Wilson), and “Sayonara, Davey!”—and we see scenes from, I believe, two of them. In one, Simmons is stuffing his face in a hot-dog-eating contest and the camera pans to the audience where a young boy shouts out, “Dad! This won’t bring Mom back!” (Even writing it down makes me laugh.) In a longer scene, from “Re-Do,” Simmons plays a man who wishes to be young again but is turned into a baby by a wizard. It’s Simmons’ head on a baby’s body. You might have seen the footage making the internet rounds a few months back. At one point he gets into an argument with his son (Justin Long) and then comes to this realization: “You know, it took me becoming a baby to realize what it means to be a man. ... Now let’s go find that wizard!”

This is devastating satire on the schlock psychology and easy epiphanies of Hollywood movies, and it’s what Apatow’s fighting against. He knows there are no easy answers. He knows comedy isn’t heartwarming. “Funny People” is an anti-Hollywood movie. It’s an anti-movie movie. It’s like Eisenhower’s farewell address. It’s a warning from inside.

—August 6, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard