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Almost Died Laughing

Funny People (2009)

Tracy Bennett/Universal Studios

“Funny People” is an apt title for Judd Apatow’s latest, which clearly stands as his most personal movie yet. From its opening images — of home-video recordings of a young Adam Sandler sent into hysterics while making prank phone calls — to its last, the film unfolds in a world indelibly familiar to the filmmaker and his ensemble of frequent collaborators. Centering the action on the Hollywood stand-up comedy circuit, the picture adopts a multitude of perspectives to explore the joys and heartbreaks of trying to be funny for a living and the collateral damage caused by the accruement of too much fame too quickly.

It’s an affecting piece of work filled with fine performances and a deep-rooted, mature comprehension of themes like aging and parental responsibility that don’t usually factor into a Sandler movie filled with dick jokes. Sure, at 145 minutes, it runs way too long, while certain Apatow staples (i.e. the repeated onscreen appearances of daughters Iris and Maude) have crossed the divide from cute to narcissistic. But the movie is, at its core, a work of earnest self-reflection, a candid look at the A-list world Mr. Apatow and his cohorts have begun to inhabit at this particular stage in their lives that raises an all-important introspective question: How has achieving success changed me?

Mr. Sandler plays a curmudgeonly version of himself. He’s George Simmons, once a struggling comedian, now a huge movie star who lives in a palatial Southern California estate affixed with every possible convenience and gets all the women he wants. But he’s not had a serious relationship since he screwed things up with Laura (Leslie Mann) more than a decade ago, and he’s been persistently unhappy ever since. Those feelings are exacerbated when, towards the beginning of the film, he learns he’s developed a rare form of leukemia and may not have much longer to live. The news inspires a renewed zeal to return to his roots in stand-up and leads him to offer his vacant personal assistant position to Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a young gun struggling to get noticed on the comedy scene.

Mr. Apatow packs a lot of plot into his epic running time (we haven’t even discussed the domestic drama that consumes a large chunk of the narrative), but the film never feels more than fleetingly superfluous. Most often it operates in that interesting territory so rare for Hollywood cinema on this scale, in which everyday characters are allowed to behave in often inexplicable but consistently human ways without being reduced to single-dimensional stereotypes. The narrative lets the filmmaker explore his profession from two key vantage points – those of the world-famous George and the anonymous Ira – each of which aids the picture’s central exploration of what exactly it means to be a funny person for a living.

Talk to a comedian about what draws them to the stage and many will cop to an addiction to the adrenaline rush of performing, to the act of standing in front of a room full of strangers and connecting through laughter. The challenge becomes the extreme letdown that comes from not being able to replicate that experience in other facets of life and the frustration that comes with circumstances interfering with the ability to practice it in its purest form. Every adolescent outburst, every cry of pain emitted by Mr. Sandler’s character here speaks directly to the loneliness and regret that comes from the overwhelming realization that things can no longer be as they once were. As Mr. Apatow depicts George alone with Ira in his mansion, asking his assistant to literally hold his hand and rock him to sleep, he successfully lends a tragic dimension to the Sandler archetype. Disappeared so fully into his world of unconscionable wealth and good fortune, he suffers terribly from the repression of his human spirit, the denial of the simple, fundamental facets that make life worth living: the ability to openly practice his profession and to experience the love of the love of his life. He’s a funny person in the strictest sense, having made millions by making people laugh, but it’d be hard to find someone more consistently joyless.

That’s not to suggest “Funny People” – bursting with energy and picturesque sun flooded California vistas – is a miserable sob story. Mr. Apatow hasn’t completely abandoned the lightheartedness of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” Mr. Rogen, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman share several amusing male-bonding moments in archetypal Apatow form. There’s significant meta pleasure to be had in the image of onetime rebel Mr. Sandler as an elder statesman of comedy, lording over the new generation as a venerated, legendary figure. There are, as alluded to earlier, the penis jokes and a frenzied, endlessly amusing Eric Bana as Laura’s husband. But most significant here, and most indicative of the fact that the movie stands closest to Mr. Apatow’s heart, is the insight it offers into the psychological makeup of the comedian. Few movies have more candidly portrayed the ironic contradictions of a profession in which one can ascend to the societal elite by making fun of it and be a funny person without actually being funny at all.


Opens on July 31 in the United States and on Aug. 28 in Britain.

Written and directed by Judd Apatow; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Brent White and Craig Alpert; music by Michael Andrews and Jason Schwartzman; production designer, Jefferson Sage; produced by Mr. Apatow, Clayton Townsend and Barry Mendel; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Adam Sandler (George Simmons), Seth Rogen (Ira Wright), Leslie Mann (Laura), Eric Bana (Clarke), Jonah Hill (Leo), Jason Schwartzman (Mark), Aubrey Plaza (Daisy), Robert Diggs a k a RZA (Chuck), Aziz Ansari (Randy) and Iris and Maude Apatow (Ingrid and Mable).


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