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.