Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Funny People (2009)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Movie Review: Funny People (2009)

Is Judd Apatow willing to gamble on his wife's acting ability at the expense of his own stratospheric success? That's the question I kept asking myself after the wonderful first half of his newest movie, Funny People, a film which represents Apatow's attempt to move his films in a more mature direction. Even by including some of his repertory performers like Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) and Jonah Hill (Superbad), and adding Adam Sandler (who proves the dramatic ability he displayed in Punch-Drunk Love was not a fluke) Apatow deftly manages to maintain an engrossing drama from going off the rails into his usual sophomoric, yet superior, humorous territory for at least this portion of the movie. Make no mistake, lest you leave the theater disappointed. Despite its broad cast of stand-up comedians and its setting in the corresponding milieu, Funny People is a drama. Sandler plays George Simmons, a stand-up comic who hit it big in the movie business. After being diagnosed with a terminal disease, he looks back at his life and wonders what it would have been like if he hadn't been so arrogant and selfish. George cheated on Laura (Leslie Mann), the only woman that ever loved him, leading her straight into a marriage and family with Clark (Eric Bana), a lout with the same tendencies to philander. George barely speaks to his parents and sister. And he has no friends outside of the cynical acquaintances he hangs out with in the stand-up world (all played by familiar comedians as some version of themselves). So George decides to get an assistant who will serve him as writer, friend, and confidant; a younger, more naive version of himself that he can hopefully steer away from the abyss he now faces: Rogen's Ira Wright. For the first hour and a half, the premise unfolds quite naturally, which is a first for a movie set in Apatow's high-concept universe. Rogen and Sandler's characters bond over their shared love for comedy, their desire to do right by people, and even over Apatow's customary dick jokes. Sandler plays George close to his heart, with early video of Sandler's comedy routines helping to give one the sense that this is a thinly veiled version of Sandler himself being opened up for all to see. It's the first time one sees the emotional burden of age lying heavy on this comedian usually known for his man-child performances. And he carries it well. Rogen shows a respectable deference to his comedic antecedent, Sandler. He wisely plays Ira as more of an optimistic sounding board and straight man than the antic misanthrope he often portrays. Ira is more often the butt of the joke than the instigator of it. And yes, there are plenty of jokes in this drama, which is to be expected in a film titled Funny People. But one should also expect an implied irony in the title, as an all-out comedy so named would otherwise invite even more criticism than this one is already receiving. So Funny People is a drama nonetheless. I could tell by all of the people in my theater walking out midway through the movie when things get even more serious with the introduction of Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife, into the mix. As Sandler and Mann's characters grow closer, the film turns into a family drama. Sandler questions whether this is the life that he should be living, with Mann and her two daughters. He feels justified in disrupting her relationship with the brutish Clark because of the man's infidelities, despite having perpetrated his own in his previous relationship with her. Todd McCarthy's review in Variety seems to put equal parts of the blame on both the script and Leslie Mann's performance for Funny People coming up short in its second half. I disagree. Funny People's storyline may turn but it does so organically, never feeling forced. The tonal shift the movie takes, and the complex emotions that the situation calls for demand a lot from an actor, and Sandler is up to the task. But Mann isn't. Yes, she is funny enough in bit parts in Apatow's previous efforts, but here she lacks the dramatic range to make us sympathize with her character's quickly shifting circumstances. Another irony since her Laura is a former actress who lost out to Cameron Diaz when both were up for The Mask (1994), and Bana's Clark implies it was for the same lack of ability. So please keep Mann in the supporting tier of your next film Judd because any blame for Funny People's second half derailing lies squarely on her shoulders, and on yours for casting her in a significant role in a movie that will unfortunately now be relegated to the interesting footnote section of your filmography.


Chuck Williamson said...

Excellent review, as always.

But I don't know if I agree with you that Leslie Mann is solely responsible for this film's derailment (and for my money, Eric Bana is far, far worse), as I personally found the whole thing to be fatally flawed. At best, it is a messy, muddled experience that is, I'll admit, intermittently brilliant but mildly disappointing by the third-act shenanigans. Apatow's fusion of family drama with his usual dick-and-fart joke-tinged man-child schtick, while fitfully brilliant, felt a little forced at times, particularly with occasional dips into melodrama. Also didn't help that the whole thing was overstuffed, formless, and maddeningly messy, in desperate need of some serious pruning.

Again, I enjoyed the film well enough--but I think Mann's subpar performance is but one of many problems with it.

MovieMan0283 said...

Fascinating review of a film I had no particular interest in seeing. Too bad about Leslie Mann, as she's always charming when she shows up on those small roles. Apatow is - not a nepotist, exactly, because (other than Mann) he's not related to the actors he uses repeatedly and even turns into stars against one's expectations, but still obviously someone who plays favorites with certain people. Which, to be honest, I love. As a fan of Freaks & Geeks (after the fact, sadly) I was delighted to see all those familiar faces popping up on the big screen mid-decade and even more delighted when they became household names and personages in the mainstream.

Tony Dayoub said...

I definitely found this film worth watching, if only for Sandler's performance and the almost anthropological view of stand-up comedians as a subculture. And I didn't have the same problem with the tonal shifts you refer to in the third act, Chuck. Suffice to say, I once found myself in a similar predicament as George Simmons, and things went much the same way as they did in the movie.

I would argue that Apatow's tendency to stay within the comfort zone of his repertory actors predisposes him to be a nepotist, MovieMan. Sure, his wife is part of the same crew he's been doing movies with, but he has slowly ramped up the amount of screen time and significance of her roles on eery occasion. And now, in Funny People, he also seems to be steering us towards his daughters (who first appeared in Knocked Up) again.

He gets points for bringing Eric Bana, Jason Schwartzman, and Aubrey Plaza, but I think a Gwyneth Paltrow would have more likely had the sufficient range to succeed in the part of Laura.

J.D. said...

I haven't seen this film yet so correct me if I'm wrong but it feels like with this film that Apatow is trying to move into James L. Brooks territory. You've got the cancer storyline a la TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and the shift from comedy to drama like, well, almost every Brooks film, however, I think that he is much more successful at it. I also thought he did a great job with Sandler in SPANGLISH, showing both a dramatic and funny side.

Tony Dayoub said...

You know, J.D., I've always resisted seeing any of Brooks' films. So I can't speak to you from an educated standpoint on that. But I know enough about his work to say that this probably comes closest to that director's sensibility or even Cameron Crowe's.

However, Crowe's films seem to be more disciplined in their structure. Any tonal shifts seem less jarring. But who's to say which is better. Crowe's style may be more cinematically correct, but Brooks' may be more in keeping with the weird turns one experiences in life.

The Mad Hatter said...

Great review, and couldn't agree with you more that the first half of this movie is far better than the second.

Mann's performance didn't bother me a lick (am I alone there?). The entire angle of George going full-tilt after something he can't have really did. The movie feels 20 minutes too long, and that whole act is about twenty or thirty minutes too

Happy to see someone taking advantage of how good an actor Sandler really is, just wish the story had of stayed a bit more on-point.

web development said...

The tonal shift the movie takes, and the complex emotions that the situation calls for demand a lot from an actor, and Sandler is up to the task. But Mann isn't.
well great review..