For his third film as a director, Judd Apatow wanted to tackle something a little deeper than a one-night stand that resulted in a baby or a sexual late bloomer with goofy friends. I can almost see him in the “reading room” when the proverbial light bulb goes off above his head and he shouts, “Imminent death! Of course!”
And so we have a film about a crisis in the life of America’s most beloved comedian, George Simmons [Adam Sandler], who gets the news that he has the rare and usually fatal disease, AML. To balance the darkness of George’s plight, we get a look into the life of wannabe stand-up comic, Evan Wright [Seth Rogen] who works at Otto’s Deli alongside a fellow named Chuck [RZA] who thinks so little of his skills that Evan has to pay him to attend his next performance.
Well, Evan gets stuck having to follow George, who appears out of the blue and proceeds to wax philosophical while making crude jokes – a mix that leaves the crowd bemused. When Evan uses him time on stage to rip George’s act, George finds him funny and hires Evan to write jokes for him – and to work for him as a kind of paid friend [which is how desperate George’s life is – everyone loves him, but no likes him].
While taking “experimental medicine from Canada,” George tries to turn his life around – going so far as to call the love of his life, Laura [Leslie Mann] – whom he cheated on over twelve years before – to apologize. She, it turns out, has the perfect life: handsome, well-off, but hard working husband and two beautiful daughters [played by Mann and Apatow’s daughters, Maude and Iris]. At more or less the same time, Evan is finding out that Daisy [Aubrey Plaza] a girl on whom he has a big crush, has slept with his roommate, Mark [Jason Schwartzman], who has a successful [if insipid] sitcom called Yo, Teach!
To say that Funny People is the most intricate and delicately balanced film to come out of the Judd Apatow Comedy Factory would be an understatement. The manner in which all the characters are entangled in the story; the way Apatow seems [or the most part] just where to insert a dick joke to defuse the tension raised by George’s situation; the way that George reverts to type at one point; the importance of George and Laura’s different reactions to a song [Maude Apatow has it in her to be a powerful singer if he should choose to go that way when she grows up] – all these things are balanced pretty well. Even the way Laura’s husband, Clarke [Eric Bana] flips between angry and apologetic feels right – though in lesser hands it would almost certainly be cringeworthy.
It may be the third best film Apatow has directed, and it may stretch credulity a time or two, but it has a melancholy undercurrent that gives the crasser material more bite and the more serious material more gravity. Remove the crotch-level humor and Funny People would feel like a really good Woody Allen movie.
It comes down to this: Funny People is a meditation on how incipient death affects the dying and those around them. With penis jokes. It works. It’s worth your time and money. Bring tissues.
Final Grade: Funny People – A-