If you look hard enough while watching a Judd Apatow film you will find yourself amazed that there is material that exists – lurking beneath all the penis and fart jokes – that is capable of moving you. I don’t think there has been a writer who has been more polarizing or misunderstood since David Mamet decided to start making movies. Like Mamet, Apatow’s points are often lost on casual audiences who can’t seem to wade their way through the pervasiveness of the vulgarity. Mamet has his “eff bombs” and racial/homophobic slurs, and Apatow has a joke bin that consists of penis/male grooming and fart jokes. Why am I saying all of this? Because I think with Apatow’s language, like Mamet, has a certain rhythm to it, and either that music jives with you or it doesn’t. Mamet’s actors are often looked at as wooden and boring – one note if you will – but the music that is Mamet’s script calls for a certain delivery that, to someone who is not a fan, seems stilted…I find it hypnotic and infectious. The same goes for Apatow, and even though his latest endeavor, Funny People, has a horribly long and awkward third act it doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable. I like the music that the dialogue makes in an Apatow film…it’s a refreshing break from the usual mainstream comedies that Hollywood spits out every year, so even when Apatow fails, it’s a fantastically interesting failure.
The film’s identity can only be described as schizophrenic. However, despite the odd ebb and flow of the film and all-wrong final act there is something interesting going on in Apatow’s film. The story is about George (Adam Sandler), a famous comic who struggles with trying to understand the latest bit of news he’s gotten from the doctor: he has a blood disease and he’s going to die. George doesn’t have the circle of friends one is supposed to rely on in this particular time, so one night while slumming it at a local Improv he decides to go on stage right before another comic, Ira (Seth Rogen). This kick starts not a typical new-friend-to-the-dying-man type formula one would expect, but more of an opportunity for Ira the comic, as he is employed by George to start writing jokes for him.
Throughout the first hour Apatow seems to be achieving something that we’ve never seen from him: a real film. That’s not to discount his other two films, The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up (I loved both), but I think with Funny People we see the maturing Apatow (now 41) going for more nuanced laughs (there’s still plenty of penis jokes, don’t worry) amid his usual pandering to the weed smoking thritysomethings that he seems to be writing for. There are still some great Apatow moments where he really digs his claws into pop culture, but the dialogue in this first hour felt more natural than in his previous films – as funny as those lines are (“I always thought Matt Damon was kind of a Streisand, but he’s rocking the shit in this one”…”If any of us get laid tonight it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich”) – I actually felt like the characters here weren’t just existing to spout his clever, pop culture infused dialogue that often act as momentum breakers – “look at me” type jokes that are damn funny, but don’t flow with the film (kind of like Mamet’s language…very showy…impressive, but showy).
One example of this is the addition of a new actor to the Apatow troupe, Jason Schwartzman. He plays Mark, one of Ira’s roommates (along with Leo played by Jonah Hill, who is thankfully dialing it down here, sticking with the maturation theme) and fellow comedian who got himself a sitcom called “Yo, Teach”, and in a hilarious bit we see Mark watching a clip of his own show (where he asks the students who the best rapper is…they reply Kanye West…he responds: “You know who else was a great rapper…”William Sh-Sh-Sh-Shakespeare”) with a girl who isn’t all that impressed with his performance (the actual clip of the show they did for the movie is one of the funniest things of the film, and a lot of it has to do with Schwartzman).
There’s also some nice touches with the strategic cameos Apatow has in the film: Paul Reiser, Norm MacDonald, Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano, and Eminem just to name a few don’t take away from the moment or what Apatow is trying to say – these aren’t “look at me” type cameos – rather they add to the layers of subtext buried beneath the more obvious humor: these funny people gnash their teeth behind every off-stage joke they make. It’s in these moments that Apatow really seems to be seriously explicating the love/hate relationship with being famous.
That formula consists of George hoping to get one last chance with the “one who got away”. This is Laura (played by Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann in a ho-hum performance) who is now married to the always-travelling hunky Aussie Clark (Eric Bana in a throwaway role). They’re of course having problems and she suspects of him of cheating and this all leads to the inevitable: George and Laura sleep together and dream of happier times. But George’s doctor throws a tree branch in their spokes as George receives good news: his illness is waning…he can continue living a normal life. But what does normal life mean after you’ve been told to prepare for death? This is too large an existential quandary for Apatow, but I give him effort points for at least broaching the subject. The problem lies in his reluctance to go for the jugular. George really doesn’t change his ways, and that's what is fascinating, instead we get cookie-cutter epiphanies that feel false, and by the end of the film I know I was supposed to empathize with Laura and how she feels stuck in a loveless marriage, but I actually started to loathe her, and began feeling sorry for Clark. That’s what Apatow gets wrong; the feeling at the end of the movie – the back-and-forth, jerking around of the audience’s emotions that occurs – that’s what sinks this thing from being a truly great modern comedy.
I’m still quite interested in what Apatow and company do next. I think he could stand to use a break and give Hollywood some time to recover from the onslaught of projects with his name attached. Still, I think he, like Mamet, remains one of the most fascinating writers working today, and Funny People is a perfect example of a filmmaker who is willing to rise up and move out of the penis and fart jokes and deliver a comedy that explicates deeper themes about being a single male who confronts the dilemmas of getting older. One half extremely fascinating procedural on the inner workings of the stand up comedy world, and the other half failed experiment, Funny People was an experience – though a tad long – that I was glad to have. It’s a film that should still be seen despite its unevenness.