Cinema’s comedy captain Judd Apatow infuses his third film Funny People with honesty, humor, and heart. Running nearly two and a half hours, the film is highly ambitious. As both a raucous comedy and a drama of personal growth, Funny People examines the strengths and vulnerabilities of the human condition. It doesn’t all run like butter, but the film has a whole lot of laughs and an awful lot to say.
The loudest guffaws and deepest sentiments stem from our foremost funny-man George Simmons, a successful yet rundown comedian forced to reconsider his life when he is diagnosed as terminally ill with a rare type of cancer. It sounds like a set-up to something saccharine, but thankfully the character is in deft hands.
As George Simmons, Adam Sandler gives a humbling performance. He balances hilarious and heartbreaking with an elegant unease, exchanging the over-the-top antics of his past work (i.e. Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy) for an astute authenticity.
Staring down death’s door, Simmons hires an aspiring comedian named Ira Wright (a strong turn by Seth Rogen) as his wingman for an ad-hoc farewell stand-up tour. Wright quickly becomes a confidante and helps Simmons tie up his life’s loose ends. Simmons’ biggest loose-end is his ex-girlfriend and “the one that got away,” Laura, played by the always lovely Leslie Mann. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman are witty and endearing as Wright’s roommates and fellow comedians, just as Eric Bana plays well Clarke, the Aussie beefcake and husband to Mann’s Laura.
Apatow understands the potency of human relationships. He carefully constructs connections between dynamic characters before propelling the story or introducing plot twists. Unfortunately, herein lies the film’s Achilles’ heel. Funny People has so much character interaction that the main storyline seems too frequently forgotten. The focal narrative follows a windy road through most of the film before veering almost completely off course in the final act during a prolonged love-triangle stint between George, Laura, and Clarke.
Regrettably, much of the dramatics in Funny People plays predictably, and even many of the movie’s jokes are not as sharp as in Apatow’s previous outings. Nonetheless, the film successfully uses humor to dissect very serious matters, offering a uniquely candid glimpse at the spectrum of human emotions. The characters thrive together, and the chemistry between all of the leads feels refreshingly effortless.
Surprisingly, the most memorable players in Funny People are not top-billed. Apatow stuffs the film with self-played cameo after cameo by some of Hollywood’s strongest and hottest comedic talents. I don’t want to spoil the fun, but unexpected and heartfelt appearances by many recognizable faces make for quite the treat.
Indeed, Funny People feels like a very personal work, perhaps even a collection of reflections and experiences by Apatow himself. The characters, settings, and human relationships are unfalteringly honest. Along with the numerous real-life references, the film can be read like a love letter of sorts to Hollywood’s current comedic climate: a love letter to funny movies and to funny people.