Movie Review: Funny People

The lazy response to Judd Apatow's Funny People will be that it isn't as, well, funny as his two previous films, The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up. The subtext of that observation, of course, is that it isn't as good as those other films, and that is a howlingly wrong presumption. True, Funny People is not Apatow's funniest film, but — true also — it is his best. While not a straight comedy, it has plenty of laughs and inspired lunatic performances (Eric Bana, in particular, is a revelation). What it also has, though, is an interest in exploring the intersection of mortality and human failing, and it does so with great clarity and a requisite lack of pity.

Seth Rogen stars as Ira, a young comedian who's still all nerves and phony confidence. His life is a cruel blend of flopping at open mics while busting his ass at a shitty job and watching his friends succeed more quickly than he is. All that changes one night, though, when he is tapped to follow stand-up and movie titan George Simmons (Adam Sandler) who's popped into a comedy club for an impromptu set. George has recently learned that he is terminally ill and his act is accordingly morbid and unfunny. He bombs and Ira— smelling blood in the water as only comedians can— piles on him with insults. For maybe the first time in his life, Ira totally kills.

From there, a curious relationship begins. Staring death in the face, George decides he's had enough of making crappy, albeit successful films and wants to return to his stand-up roots. He hires Ira as a writer with the veiled understanding that Ira will also be George's valet. And off they go! George's cynicism is ever so slightly scraped away by Ira's wide-eyed enthusiasm, and for awhile they seemingly become friends (in fact, Ira may be George's only friend). George also eventually feels compelled to repair the many failed relationships that dot the history of his life, especially the one he had with Laura, the girl who "got away" (because he cheated on her).

So far it sounds like a pretty common story: guy realizes he's dying so he tries to fix his life and become a better man. Funny People could have followed that well-run route and been an easy-to-digest, mainstream comedy. However, Apatow goes for something more complex and, ultimately, more accurate and satisfying. True, George flirts with the notion of becoming a decent person, but that just isn't who George really is. Try as he might to move past it, that selfish core of his always floats back to the surface and poisons those around him. It's how George deals with that -- and not his impending death -- that is the true point of the film.

One issue that I'd like to address because it's been raised by so many critics is the length of the film. It stretches to almost two and a half hours. Sure, that feels very long for a presumed comedy, but again Funny People isn't a comedy (no matter what its marketing campaign may want you to believe). I hold that the length of this film is necessary because it allows for the creation of a very lived-in world. This film just isn't about George and Ira. It's about Ira's roommates and the girl on whom Ira has a crush. It's about Laura's children. It's about Eric Bana as her husband. It's about the world of stand-up comedy. It's its own very real universe.

Is it a complete success? Of course not. Few films are. I could have done with less Randy (you'll understand) and less Yo Teach (you'll really understand). On balance, though, Funny People is a striking move forward for Apatow, both as a writer and director. As a writer, he's delivered a tough, challenging script that never settles into the easy grooves it almost aches to slip into because they're so familiar. As a director, he's pulled out the best performances I've yet seen from Sandler, Rogen, Mann and Bana. There are maybe five or six movies every year that I'll pay to see more than once at the theater. Funny People will definitely be one of them.

Funny People opens this Friday.