Arts and Culture

'Funny People'

Apatow plus Rogen plus Sandler plus cancer. Are you laughing?

By Steve Burgess 31 Jul 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee every other Friday.

"Let the awkwardness begin!"

What he said. In Funny People Adam Sandler is so multi-talented he does comedy, he does drama, and with that offhand remark, provides the perfect capsule review. Writer/director Judd Apatow's latest opus is a platypus of a movie, a pastiche of melodrama, gags, rom-com, character study, frantic schtick, Hollywood-insider digest, and dark celebrity fable. Funny People rambles through about two-and-a-half different movies in almost two-and-a-half hours. Some of its 146 minutes seem like hours in themselves. In whole and in part, Funny People is one clumsy beast.

Sandler is George Simmons, a superstar comedian who isn't laughing when he gets a nasty diagnosis from his doctor. Seth Rogan plays Ira Wright (actually Ira Weiner, but he changed it), a struggling stand-up comedian/deli counter employee who somehow manages to get hired as Simmons' gag writer and dogsbody.

Vancouver viewers can take a certain parochial pride in the booming career of Rogen, whose likeable screen persona makes him watchable even when the material is less than A-grade. He's looking mighty slim these days, a fact slyly worked into the script. "Shouldn't have lost that 20 pounds," says his pudgy roommate Leo (Jonah Hill). "There's nothing funny about a physically-fit person."

Life is funny, right?

There's nothing very funny about Sandler either, and that's by design. His George Simmons is a jaded and rather nasty show biz veteran staring death in the face. Not a lot of laughs there. Home movies show us the excited kid who was just tasting the joys of fame, the beginning of a career path that would include smash-hit hack work in movies called Merman (Simmons/Sandler with a fish tail) and Re-Do (Simmons/Sandler as a baby). He has no real friends and his big love got sick of the philandering and left. Now he has leukemia. Living the dream, George.

His new gag writer on the other hand is as earnest and well-meaning as a young Seth Rogan. Wright tries to make his sick boss an iPod playlist and messes it up so badly ("I've Had the Time of My Life," plus tracks by cancer victims Bob Marley and Warren Zevon) that Simmons curses him out and stomps away. Darkly funny, in theory; as played by the relentlessly dyspeptic and downbeat Sandler, just awkward.

Awkward, awkward, awkward. Funny People has it in every size and colour. The movie is packed with uncomfortable scenes and unpleasant people. At about the 70-minute mark a series of celebrity cameos kick in. Some of them might be funny if they occurred in a movie that hadn't spent an hour making you feel so confused and squeamish. Then the big plot twist arrives, and Funny People morphs into a romantic comedy co-starring Eric Bana and Leslie Mann, one in which you hope nobody gets anybody because everyone involved deserves to be miserable for the rest of their lives.

Loudly playing the organ

Apatow is a sharp guy, and his movie isn't exactly stupid. There are numerous well-observed set pieces about celebrity and the petty scrambling of struggling wannabee comics. Situations that at first seem unintentionally creepy are later revealed to be intentionally creepy. You've got to give Apatow credit -- he wants these people to seem shallow and unlikable.

Less clear is whether he wants Rogen's aspiring comic to be funny. People keep telling him he isn't, and for the most part they're right. But it seems we are supposed to see him as a raw talent who is finding his voice. Whether you agree may depend on your feelings about cock jokes. They are the heart and soul of professional comedy, it says here. There are so many references to the male organ that the cameo appearance of Andy Dick seems like an inside joke.

Sandler and Rogen eventually have a nasty showdown in which the superstar tells his protege that he's not funny, and the kid responds that his boss is an unhappy, selfish prick. Since they're both right it could have worked as a happy ending. But unhappily for everyone, Funny People goes on. Pretty soon you'll be wishing you were at that movie about the baby with Adam Sandler's head. It will probably be in the director's cut.  [Tyee]

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