The funniness of people has been a subject of interest to entertainers for many years. We know this from TV shows such as “Animals are the Funniest People,” “America’s Funniest People,” and several called “People Are Funny,” from several different decades. We know it from movies such as Funny Stories, Funny People, a French-language film from Cameroon, and of course Funny People (1977) and Funny People II (1983) two Candid Camera-style adventures in South Africa from the director of The Gods Must Be Crazy.
Real stand-up guys: Adam Sandler cuts the act and gets serious with Seth Rogen in Funny People.
And we know it from writer-director-producer-comedy-godfather Judd Apatow, who has been involved with many shows and movies about the funniness of people, including, most recently, Funny People. This is only the third film Apatow has written and directed (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up are the other two), but it is distinctly his most ambitious. Which means it isn’t always funny. But in a good way. Sometimes it’s very tender and sad. Sometimes it’s angry, and so ashamed of its tenderness and sadness that it reflexively rebuffs them with hostility and absurdity. And dick jokes. But it knows it does this; it’s rather philosophical about it. Funny People, in other words, is a human comedy.
Imagine “Tears of a Clown” elaborated to two-and-a-half hours. And with Adam Sandler instead of Smokey Robinson. Sure, it’s long, but it needs time to develop.
Sandler plays George Simmons, a successful but evidently miserable middle-aged comedy star (of such highly lucrative movie mediocrities as MerMan, Astro-Nut and My Best Friend is a Robot, among many others) whose jaded, monstrously self-absorbed soul gets an existential jolt when he’s diagnosed with a potentially terminal disease. Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright, a comedy up-and-comer still finding his voice, who lands a dubious gig as George’s personal assistant, joke writer, and reluctant emotional caretaker.
As George grapples with his illness, tries to reconnect with his now-married ex, Laura (Leslie Mann), and inevitably tangles with her husband (Eric Bana), Ira takes whatever mentoring he can get. But it strains Ira’s already competitive relationships with his roommates, Mark (Jason Schwartzman), the self-satisfied star of a dumb new sitcom, and Leo (Jonah Hill), another aspiring comedian (“the fatter version of you,” as George puts it). There’s also Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), a girl Ira likes, who’s also a comedian. But Funny People’s most essential and most developed relationship is between Ira and George. It ruminates on the simple, complicated question of whether or not they can manage enough maturity to really be friends.
We have no shortage of movies whose subject is vulnerable male self-centeredness, but Apatow is approaching mastery of the form. Funny People benefits greatly from his perceptive understanding of Rogen and Sandler’s comic personas, as it does from its maker’s overall generosity. Apatow articulates and allows his characters’ flaws with grace and good humor. We get it: They’re not just funny; they’re people.