Saturday, August 1, 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.