Monday, November 30, 2009

"Funny People": it was funnier than "Funny Games"

Following the immense success of directorial efforts "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up", Judd Apatow made a movie about how gorgeous his wife Leslie Mann is and how adorable their daughters are, and nobody came.

The movie was packed with stars - de facto everyman Seth Rogen, "Punch Drunk Love" drama veteran Adam Sandler, sidekicks Jonah Hill ("Superbad") and Jason Schwartzman ("Rushmore"), and self-reflexive cameos from the comedic likes of Ray Romano, Dave Attell, Norm MacDonald, Aziz Ansari, Sarah Silverman, Carol Leifer, Al Lubel, Andy Dick, Paul Reiser, and even James Taylor and Eminem. The movie came from Judd Apatow, who since "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" has had his hand in basically every comedy to come out of Hollywood. The story was supposed to be about a young comic finding his voice by helping a seasoned superstar face his mortality. On paper, it seems like a sure thing.

Now first, let me clarify: I am a sucker for stand up comedy, and anything about stand up. I absolutely loved the documentary "The Comedians of Comedy", which followed Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn, and Maria Bamford on a short West Coast tour doing comedy in small rock clubs. Aside from small parts of their sets on the road, there is a great deal of discourse about how a comic develops and the different brands of comedy. I similarly am an avid listener to the Comedy Death-Ray Radio podcast, where basically anyone in comedy, be they Mr. Show alum, Upright Citizen's Brigade players, or former members of The State, come on and wax philosophical with host (and Mr. Show alum/Comedy Death-Ray co-founder) Scott Aukerman. A movie about comics working on their comedy is right up my alley. In the words of comic songwriting duo Hard 'N Phirm (Chris Hardwick and Mike Phirman), I am a comedy nerd. When I first saw the give-away-the-whole-movie-trailer, I was excited.

Then came the reviews. The phrases "most personal film" and "unfocused" popped up time and time again. A movie about struggling comics and actors getting help from a seasoned veteran would have been great. A movie about a lonely superstar coming to terms with his life and lost opportunities would likewise have been great. Kind of mix the two together, though, and you end up with a movie that's... well, unfocused and personal.

Adam Sandler plays an aging superstar that has a rare form of leukemia. Trying to find his roots, he stops at an old stand up haunt and gives a grim monologue. Struggling comic Seth Rogen tries to follow the act as best he can, and scraps together a few laughs at Sandler's expense. Inexplicably, Sandler decides to hire Rogen to write some material for him. Rogen then has to juggle Sandler's mood swings and his roommates, the jealous Jonah Hill and ego maniacal Jason Schwartzman. Shit hits the fan when Sandler recovers and decides to chase after his ex Leslie Mann, who is married to Eric Bana who miraculously fathered Judd Apatow's daughters.

So, basically, it's everything you saw in the trailer, except some of the funnier jokes from the trailer inexplicably are absent from the finished film (no Sandler bits about sex with girlfriends or Rogen's "my face is circumcised"). Had the film been focused on either the "struggling comics and actors" plot or the "lonely superstar facing his mortality" story, we would have had ourselves a tight comedy or dramedy, but mixing the two makes for an uneven tale that's only intermittently amusing.

It's not to say "Funny People" is completely devoid of value or insight, however. Buried underneath the loose editing and writing (even for an Apatow movie) there are some pearls, such as the aforementioned foul-mouthed cameo of one Mr. Marshall Mathers at a party of stars after Sandler's recovery:

We're not always so lucky to get second chances. The underlying message that Apatow seems to be driving at is that when we do, we can't change the past, but we need to learn from previous failures so we have a chance at getting it right the next time around. Had "Funny People" been an hour shorter, that message may have come across more clearly and humorously. As a comedy fan, I can only hope that Apatow learns from these shortcomings and gets his next project right.

TOO MUCH: Leslie Mann subplot, being able to see Seth Rogen's weight fluctuate from scene to scene

COULD HAVE USED MORE: good jokes from the trailer, better editing choices, comedians talking about comedy, an hour less of run time

FILM SNOB NOTE: Seth Rogen wearing an Upright Citizen's Brigade tee in one of the earlier scenes at Sandler's mansion is not a fluke. The UCB has been the birthing place and playground for the best comedians in show business for over a decade.




  1. Love the paragraph about "personal" and "unfocused." That's an editor's opinion.

    Keep 'em coming, sir.


  2. Takes an editor to know an editor, sir.