Funny People

Starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, and Jason Schwartzman. Directed by Judd Apatow.
Rated  MA15+ (Strong sexual references and coarse language). 145 min.

This is an American comedy-drama movie, directed, written, and co-produced by Judd Apatow. The film focuses around George (Adam Sandler), a stand-up comedian, who has become increasingly isolated from those he needs to care about, including his family and friends. His past love Laura (Leslie Mann) has got away, and he is emotionally conflicted by the loss. His life is thrown into turmoil by the news, conveyed early in the film, that he is suffering from a rare form of leukaemia. He is told that his illness is terminal and that nothing can be done. However, after thinking that his life is ebbing away, he learns that his cancer has responded to an experimental drug and has gone into remission. Having almost experienced death, George wants now to live his life better, and decides to get his emotional attachments back on track, including doing something about Laura, who is unfortunately for him married to a gauche Australian (Eric Bana). The film plays soulfully with the tragedy of impending illness, and lampoons frailties and weaknesses on- and off-stage. George hires Ira (Seth Rogen), as his apprentice, to write jokes for him. George and Ira bond together naturally, and their relationship develops as a key focus of the film.

The movie plays people’s sadness for laughs, which is unsettling. It is not really a comedy so much as a dark trip through people’s mixed-up lives. After being responsible for giving us “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”, Judd Apatow focuses in this film, much more pointedly than before, on the dramatic underpinnings of the human condition, rather than humanity at its surface. Sandler plays the role of George intelligently and sensitively, and is very ably supported by Seth Rogen. George finds it hard to let go of the privileged side of life, which is fanned by his popularity as an entertainer, but dying is a hard matter for laughter appeal, and on-stage George’s humour descends readily into the dark side of life.   

The movie roams through dysfunctional families, makes constant penis jokes, and flirts with male bonding. The comic moments are raunchy and rough, although Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill give us some great comedy routines as George’s room-mates, as also Seth Rogen as Ira. There is an air of spontaneous improvisation about most of the routines, particularly those that occur off stage, but although the lines in this film are delivered by good comic performers, the film is too long. When George decides to take stock of his life, his decision to raise his romance from the past is a distraction from the film’s main theme. The film’s most interesting features are what it says about the shifting fortunes of “funny people” – people who have chosen to cope professionally with the ups and downs of living the life of persons, who have to be funny. It deals well with the sadness and fleeting happiness of middle-aged comedians working at being funny, but is side-tracked by its plot complexity. The romance sub-plot with Laura throws it off balance.

The movie has been classified appropriately. It has very crude sexual humour throughout, and could easily offend some people. Its vulgarity is caught on stage through some rough comic routines, and off-stage by real life routines, and the raunchiness of the movie as a whole seems unnecessary for character development. The crudity of the routines, though, says a lot about the actual nature of contemporary stand-up comedy.  

Knowing one is about to die and deciding to live a better life as a result are always unsettling in their impact, but these themes offer significant dramatic opportunities that the film could have captured, but doesn’t. There are some genuinely funny moments in this thoughtfully different film, and it entertains largely because of the very considerable comic skills of the actors who feature in it. Despite its comic spontaneity, however, and its authentic delivery of stand-up comedy routines, the film lingers in the mind as one that builds skilfully on lost opportunities.

Universal Pictures.
Out September 10, 2009.

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.


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