Funny People (2009)

Some have called Judd Apatow‘s film Funny People his most mature film to date, a description that seems lost when talking about a filmmaker most widely known for his work in comedy.  Funny People is technically Apatow’s third feature film in the directors chair, though his list of producing and writing credits are considerably longer and include popular and long running tv series among other things.  The trouble with this film is that it blurs the genre line between what we expect as a comedy and drama, lovingly if not dismissively classified as “dramedy” and what the film actually delivers.  Funny films can be serious just as serious films can be funny – the best generally contain a balance of the two, a measure that gives us pause from dramatic tension or roots silly scenarios in reality when the improbable world of comedy goes astray.  Where this film gets in over its head is by trying to cater to all audience expectations instead of exploring the one interesting thing about the premise – how does a comedian face mortality?

Funny People is loaded with top talent, from the cast to the crew though most are primarily known for comedies, silly and often vulgar films like The 40-Year Old Virgin and Superbad, leaving those more interested in dramatic films skeptical about the investment. While the film received a fair share of positive reviews, both critics and audiences already endeared to Apatow and his merriment, it didn’t do so well at the box office.  Most of where the film loses momentum is by not following through and mining the rich possibilities of the premise; Apatow says he commingled two ideas for the film, the story of surviving a near-death experience and an exploration of the person inside the comedian.  Yet Apatow never fully grasps the complexity of such an undertaking and fails to create a sustainable mood. These are superficial characters stumbling through implausible situations that are either not funny when they should be or not believable enough when things go wrong.

At a hundred and forty-six minutes it would be enough to call this comedy-in-sheep’s-clothing bloated and acerbic.  Apatow keeps all the sight gags and all the serious seconds, perhaps hoping we’ll find something to latch on to and persevere when the story frequently comes to an abrupt stop as though pausing after a bad joke for applause that never arrives. However, the lethargy that oozes from every editorial decision, every choice in pushing these comedic actors into the uncharted waters of drama turns uncomfortable into a liability rather than a way in from the cold. Perhaps it was the fault of one of the six editors for fumbling, casting aside any inkling of story or character arcs or any one of a hundred reasons to cut here and take out there. Maybe it is enough to suggest that the fresh men and women assembled around the editing suite were overwhelmed by the track record of the writer/director/producer who has created some of the most widely successful comedic hits at the box office in recent memory.   It seems no one bothered to ask the right questions or perhaps no one liked what they were given.  At any rate, Funny People wants to believe in itself more than a first time comedian hopes his/her jokes get a laugh or two from a tough audience, only confidence isn’t nearly enough – you have to actually be funny, especially in this day and age.

Funny People never really knows what it wants to be.  An imbalance of situational comedy and left field drama, Funny People isn’t about funny or people.  What it tries to be is an insiders look at humorists, at the people in front of the laughs and the way in which celebrities face sometimes familiar problems everyday people know all too well.  What Apatow banks on is that we’ll invest because we know these actors and we’ve seen them in various roles and movies we’ve enjoyed in the past.  What it amounts to is a half-hearted attempt to put a grown up Adam Sandler on the screen, give him a terminal illness and erect a bunch of artificial subplots and hum-drum characters around him to see what happens. But unlike a chemistry experiment where the outcome is either success or a resounding explosion of goopy goop that you or some other has to clean up, we get lost right along with the narrative and somewhere near the middle, or before we realize we don’t care that much for Sandler’s character or have any lasting interest in the other characters around him.  Not even Jonah Hill resembles a character we want to follow helplessly through the trials and tribulations of his search for t.v sitcom stardom.  What happened to the lines he should have been given?  And Jason Schwartzman is not only clueless as to why he is even in this film but his emotionless stumblings as the star of a ridiculously hip television show are undercooked and served up cold.  Which leads to question all the cameos of everyone from James Taylor to Dave Attell; lastly a truly funny man but his sloppy drunk bit was out-of-place and should have found the cutting room floor.  There is no sense of order that keeps all the loose pieces together and instead we’re left holding a bag of puzzle pieces no one wants to put together.

In the end, Funny People gets in its own way of making us laugh and giving us a reason to care about the men and women who deliver the jokes.  Mortality is a risky subject for any movie but when seriousness takes a back seat to cheap jokes and lackluster performances it is difficult to get the point, laugh, and relate.  I feel compelled to make my own edit of this film, to pick and mine the classic Apatow comedic gold from the rest of the mess and enjoy twenty minutes of laughs that don’t pretend to be a story and certainly arrives late and leaves early.

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About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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11 Responses to Funny People (2009)

  1. Have been bodyguarding two little French kids for two weeks and their Grandmother.The kids speak no English…They went home yesterday.Now I can breathe and read…Great review Rory.I have not seen this film yet.I posted it on my wall.James

    • rorydean says:

      Sounds like you’ve had your hands full. Thanks for the note. I had higher hopes for this Sandler flick but alas it was not so. I’m amazed that his previous success with a slew of funny, not-so-funny, and down right shameful films has lasted this long that he can continue to get films the green light. I wanted this film to be as good as Punch Drunk Love (which you should see if you haven’t) but it faltered and the premise of how do funny people, aka comedians face the notion of terminal illness and mortality never pays off in the end. The film resorts to trite, derivative humor and shocking sentimentality to achieve mediocre connection with otherwise superficial characters. I remember reaching the end of this film and wanting my money back. Happily it was a free rental.

  2. Richard says:

    I nearly passed into a coma watching this one. I’m all for central characters who are hard to warm to, but eventually I just found myself waiting for Adam Sandler to die. Way, way, way too long as well.

    Great review, Rory.

    • rorydean says:

      Hey Richard — Thanks for the thoughts, always appreciated. I had actually heard good things about this one before I started it but things went quickly downhill after about three minutes. I’m always amazed how films like this cost $75 million dollars. I mean I know there are a lot of people getting paid, not to mention the inflated salaries of the ‘stars’, but films like this shouldn’t cost so much money. Did you get a chance to read my review of Wolfman -> https://rorydean.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/the-wolfman-he-aint/ <-

      Another bloated, insulting to the senses flick that fails in so many ways I think one could use it as an example of what NOT to do when making a movie – EVER!

      Ha! Seeing Sandler kick the bucket might have improved the film if it happened at the inciting incident, around the 7 minute marker.
      cheers-

  3. tom says:

    I like this movie. I think people are too hard on Sandler. He’s made a lot of movies and money and he must be doing it right to be around so long. Maybe you should watch more of his films or write about them to like his work more.

    • rorydean says:

      Hey Tom — this one got deleted or tagged for spam for some reason. You might be right about Sandler, then again he does open himself up for criticism with often formulaic, freshman humor but one cannot deny that his films make money and in the long run of Hollywood, that means he’ll be around to make more movies. With your suggestion I’m going to have to revisit some of his other films, especially Punch Drunk Love which I found his best film to date. I mean it is nothing like his usual faire so go figure. Stay tuned!

  4. CMrok93 says:

    It’s funny in the first act, then it goes on to become too serious, but still very very funny. But I still had a great time with these performances, and the cameos just worked out so well for this film. Not my favorite by Apatow but still a good one none the less. Good Review!

    • rorydean says:

      Hey Dan — Yeah, I kept wanting things to work, to find the balance between comedic and dramatic – I mean hell, a comic facing mortality is rife with possibilities. Of course I also had hopes that the film was going to be like Punch Drunk Love – which if you haven’t seen I HIGHLY recommend it. The best serious film Sandler has done – maybe ranks up there with the best he’s ever done, comedy and all. But I’m probably bias as I go in for that sort of thing. I guess the cameos felt rushed, thrown in for the sake of getting your famous friends to appear in random, hurried fashion. Maybe this is the sort of film I need to watch again – maybe with cocktails. Thanks->

  5. joem18b says:

    Nice review.

    As I read it, I found myself agreeing sometimes, and sometimes not, but always with a feeling of something not quite right. I thought that this was because I quit halfway through the movie and missed some of the parts you were describing…

    But no! Through the whole review and into the comments, I was thinking about “Grownups,” which I just partially watched, not “Funny People.” I don’t remember ever doing that before.

    Having said that, I am a total Sandler fan, and that includes his hits like “Little Nicky” and “Funny People.” “Grownups,” though, that’s a strange one. I was going to finish it but ended up just watched something else instead. Didn’t care.

    • rorydean says:

      Hey thanks! I think the best reviews keep you in the middle, somewhere between agreement and rebuttal – the best ones keep you reading. Interesting about mixing up the two movies, though I think some of Sandler’s films do tend to feel formulaic and consequently one might easily think of one when they are watching the other. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re a fan. I think we tend to let actors and filmmakers we like slide when it comes to critiquing their work. I can’t say I’ll revisit Little Nicky – like you with Grownups, I wasn’t compelled to finish it.

  6. Pingback: Mel Gibson: auteur dramatique | Above the Line

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