“Funny People” combines two very different movies. The first is a typically crass, shallow Judd Apatow production, saturated with childish sexual antics and slapstick humor. The second is a dark, self-aware examination of a painful and ultimately meaningless life. What starts out as an intriguing dance between these two different themes ends up as a brawl in which crass and shallow wins by a TKO in the 23rd round.
In the first few minutes, we witness the transition of George Simmons (Adam Sandler) from a happy kid clowning around with prank phone calls and practical jokes to a wildly successful comedian and movie star, standing alone like an emperor on the balcony of his huge mansion by the sea. His crude instincts have become the foundation of a vast entertainment empire. The transition from Sandler’s grainy amateur videotapes with friends to his isolation above manicured lawns and swimming pools won’t exactly compete with Citizen Kane, but it is not unmoving. There even appears to be a glimmer of irony at the way society rewards childish behavior.
We witness Sandler through a day in the life: he wades through crowds of adoring fans who gather whenever he walks down the street. He has obviously become experienced at shaking hands and wisecracking while keeping his distance. He wades through stacks of proposed scripts and lucrative offers that have been submitted for his consideration. He wades through piles of possessions that now weigh him down and no longer give him pleasure. It becomes clear to us that his glitzy life is hollow at the core, and Sandler is forced to confront that fact as well when his doctor tells him that he has AML, a form of leukemia, and is likely to die.
Sandler first flails around in response to this news, sometimes in persuasive ways. After a particularly bitter and unsettling performance at a comedy club, Sandler meets Seth Rogen as Ira Wright, a young and aspiring comedian who works in a delicatessen and wants nothing more than to become a comedy star like Sandler. Sandler is reminded of his younger, purer days and takes Rogen under his wing as a joke writer and valet. Their adventures together take up most of the story. We see Sandler’s lavish lifestyle as well as his dark vices through the wide eyes of Rogen and occasionally we even care about which one of them will transform the other first.
At Rogen’s instigation, Sandler revisits his past, talks with his estranged family and friends, and even reaches out to the one true love of his life, the girlfriend who left him years before because he cheated on her. The former girlfriend, Laura (Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann) is now married to an Australian businessman (Eric Bana) and has a family life with two delightful daughters (played by the children of Apatow and Mann).
This movie is more interesting than typical Apatow fare and even has some good moments, but it cries out for an editor. It becomes less satisfying as it progresses (and it progresses for a long, loooonnnnng time).
Apparently, Apatow is only able to go so deep before resorting to his former self. At one point, Rogen yells at Sandler, “you didn’t learn anything from a near death experience! You are worse than you were before!” Words for Apatow to ponder.