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October 5, 2009 | by  | in Film |
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Funny People

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Judd Apatow’s latest film is an odd beast. The first half of the film presents to the audience a filmmaker matured. Apatow gifts us a funny, well-acted, thoughtful and surprisingly moving story about a man who finds his humanity while staring death in the face and then discards it when no longer faced with the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s possibly his best work yet, and shows a depth and intelligence to the man kept hidden by bromances and dick jokes. However, the second half of the film is Apatow at his most indulgent, and it undermines his good work up until that point. He shows us the magic that he’s capable of, and then he cruelly snatches it away from us with an underwritten, clunky ‘one that got away’ subplot. It’s a bad move—terrible, even—and impacts on the excellence of the first half in disappointing fashion.

And what excellence that first half brings, only to be cruelly blown out by a man ill-at-ease with drama. Adam Sandler plays George Simmonds, a famous comedian who coasts through life making shitty movies and pretending he still has the spark that he lost long ago. Sandler plays Simmonds—and, as an extension, himself—as a brooding, isolated, self-hating mess who uses his comedy as a front, and he’s rarely been better. The opening scenes are home videos Apatow shot when he and Sandler were college roomies, and these filmed prank calls establish quickly and clearly just how close to the bone this character, and this film, is for Sandler. Sandler attacks all the skeletons in his closet with a brave, raw, painfully honest performance, and while the character he plays is essentially a dick, it’s hard not to empathise with the man as his dickishness slowly dawns on him.
Seth Rogen plays his assistant-cum-manfriend, struggling comedian Ira Wright. Rogen, too, gives what is easily one of the best performances of his brief forest-fire of a career. There’s a vulnerability and almost pathological need to please that punches through every facet of Rogen’s performance, and the dominant—submissive relationship between he and Sandler feels natural and authentic. From things as big as his actions at the MySpace gig him and George perform at, to things as small as his weight loss, Ira is driven to be liked, more than anything, and Rogen captures this perfectly, playing down the charisma that made him a star in the first place. Rogen and Sandler are more than adequately supported by a great supporting cast in this half as well, Jason Schwartzmann and Jonah Hill in particular shining as Rogen’s roommates, who possess the exact amount of career integrity Simmonds does, but none of the fame.

However, Apatow’s good character work and great jokes (the J-List Jewish dating service joke is stunning in its abruptness and bluntness), and the great acting as well, only last so long. This is because, at around the 90-minute mark, Apatow takes a wrecking ball to all this and wedges in an underwritten and hokey romance subplot that smacks of an attempt by Apatow to best James L. Brooks at his own game. This half of the film, by and large, lacks saving graces. While Apatow illustrates how Simmonds hasn’t changed one bit since his dance with death a lot during this half, he could easily have done so more effectively without this unwanted addition. Furthermore, the ‘one that got away’, an actress-turned-housewife named Laura, is outrageously underdeveloped. In fact, she’s so underdeveloped that by the end of the film, all we know about her is that she’s most emphatically not a bitch and that she will change who she loves at the drop of a well-timed “I can change” hat. For any accomplished and talented actor, Laura would be a hard character to humanise. Unfortunately, Leslie Mann is not accomplished and talented, and she giggles and overacts her way through a role that she butchers more than I thought possible. The nepotism-tastic casting of Mann (Judd’s wife) and the two Apatow brats only exacerbates the glaring problems in this half of the film, and you feel every minute of the film while it sputters down this road, refusing to stop. Admittedly, the second half does have a saving grace in Eric Bana’s incredibly funny, film-stealing performance, but it’s too little, too late, and the film can no longer claw back the power and intelligence that it has spent on half-baked romantics.

Funny People
had the potential to be the apex of Judd Apatow’s career, and for ninety minutes, it seems like the film is actually going to live up to that potential. Sandler’s and Rogen’s performances are fantastic, the writing is both funny and thoughtful, and not even a painful-to-watch Eminem cameo can derail proceedings. But once Apatow starts dedicating substantial amounts of time to Leslie Mann and her infernal giggle, the film starts to go downhill, fast. By the end of the film, Funny People only confirms one thing—that Apatow needs to reign in his indulgences, or else he will never make a film as good as the first ninety minutes of this.

Funny People
Written and directed by Judd Apatow
With Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana and Jonah Hill

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Comments (1)

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  1. Tim says:

    Dear Salient film review column,

    I have never written in before but seen as this will be my last week at vuw I thought I’d grow some balls.

    To cut a long story short I find the majority of your reviewers do a pretty sweet job. In particular I really enjoy the diverse entries by Costas (I mean he just reviwed ‘Two Lane Blacktop’ – Fuck yes!). However, in the edition just been I had a bit of an issue with Adams piece on ‘Funny People’.

    Sure, as a reviewer it’s your duty to review a film and in doing so your personal opinion will influence what you write. Fine. That’s great. As a reader I enjoy agreeing or disagreing with what one has thought about a film. But when someone spends 3/4 of a review writing the same thing over and over and over, it does nothing but put the reader off and, dear I say it, want to watch re-runs of reality TV shows instead. I mean, was the 90 minute mark in ‘Funny People’ really worth that many words?

    I would offer my own words on the film but I just have to watch the final season of Big Brother #9.

    But in all seriousness, it’s been a pleasure picking up that magazine and B-lining to the film review section every monday. I just think Adam needs to start thinking beyond his guns.

    S. Peckinpah.

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