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Funny People (2009) Dir. Judd Apatow 31 August 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Cinema Review.
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One of the most satisfying aspects of being a fan, whether you’re the fan of an artist, a singer an actor or a director, is that once in a while someone comes along who fulfils every aspect of the potential you saw in those rough-around-the-edges early days. Starting out on TV with under-seen but much loved coming-of-age comedy shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared before graduating to the big screen – directing two of the most well balanced comedies of the past decade and acting as leading light of the frat pack production line – Judd Apatow has blossomed from the prank phone call origins witnessed in Funny People’s opening scene to a much more thoughtful and reflective film-maker, albeit one with a mouth foul enough to make a sailor blush.

The plot is a loose adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with added dick jokes. When comedy mega-star George Simmons (Adam Sandler) finds out he has a terminal illness he befriends wannabe stand-up performer Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), employing him to write jokes and act as his personal assistant while George fumbles about trying to make amends for a wasted life. The real problem for George is “the one that got away” Laura (Apatow’s real life wife Leslie Mann) who now has her own family, but an unhappy marriage to Australian alpha male Clarke (Eric Bana). George takes it upon himself to save Laura from Clarke, with Ira reluctantly in tow, but has staring death in the face really taught George to change his debauched ways?

Sentiment is a hard thing to stomach on film. Getting the balance right can be a problem even for film-makers like Steven Spielberg, whose tooth-decaying syrup injections are usually what let his flawed efforts down (see the last 20 minutes of AI for the best example). But Apatow just about pulls it off, with a genuinely heartfelt story of pathos and regret that refuses to fall into rom-com genre trappings (at least until its contrived ending). Funny People is first and foremost the product of a film-maker who is also a family man. Spielberg once famously said that if he was to make Close Encounters of the Third Kind today he wouldn’t have Roy abandon his family and run off with ET at the end, and the same could be said for Apatow. Had he made Funny People ten years ago no doubt things would have turned out differently for Sandler’s repulsive George, but Apatow has matured as a film-maker to the point that he’s not afraid to show us the film where the guy doesn’t get the girl.

Despite all this talk of maturing as a film-maker Apatow certainly hasn’t abandoned what made him popular in the first place – a razor sharp sardonic wit and some of the foulest verbal exchanges committed to film. In a film all about stand-up comedians you would expect the laughs to come thick and fast, however they’re spread a little too thinly over Funny People’s mammoth two and a half hour running time to justify going to see the film just for its laugh quotient, though overall you won’t be disappointed. Where the film really works is its wonderfully realised central relationships between George, Ira and Laura covering friendship, love, regret and forgiveness at levels unheard of for most modern, puerile rom-coms.

Sandler gives a performance at least equal, if not better than his game changing turn in Punch Drunk Love, where the world finally realised there was more to Sandler than the class clown (a stage in Sandler’s career hilariously mocked in Funny People through a series of spoof films George has appeared in over the years). Rogen puts in a fine turn as Ira, playing a slightly more child-like and gentle version of Ben from Knocked Up and going through a similar character arc, from puppy dog loyalty to George, to making the difficult moral choice. While Mann is instantly likeable as the conflicted wife and mother who has never reconciled her decision to leave George all those years ago. Bana excels in his first out and out comedy since his early days of sketch shows in his native Australia, nailing every one-liner like a game of whack-a-mole and delivering some of the film’s biggest laughs. Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill provide able support as Ira’s successful, albeit sleazy, room-mates while Apatow has managed to populate the rest of his world with enough memorable faces to keep you smiling throughout.

Not necessarily his best film but his most mature and thoughtful to date, Funny People marks Apatow still riding high on the crest of his A-game. While it could have done with half an hour being exorcised, it’s refreshing to watch a mainstream comedy that dares to offer a more rewarding experience to viewers raised on a diet of last minute embraces and improbable reconciliations. The only problem is after covering sex, birth and death what does Judd Apatow have left? I’d put money on a ghost buddy comedy with Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen, natch.