I need to get my biggest criticism for "Funny People" out of the way here at the beginning: it is not the movie the marketing campaign would lead you to believe it is. While it is true of the ads that this film is more than just a comedy and that it contains some heavy themes involving a near-death experience, it would be more accurately described as a dark drama punctuated by some very funny lines. But I suppose that doesn't get people in to see the movie.
After all, the film stars Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen (who have wonderful rapport), among many other, uh, funny people, and is written and directed by Judd Apatow, the director of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." Of course the trailers have been playing up this angle but, as my wife commented, that's like marketing "Schindler's List" as "From the director of 'E.T.' and 'Jaws'." It doesn't tell you much about the movie you are about to see.
This beef aside, what you will see is a very mature drama (yes, I said mature despite the rampant penis jokes) reminiscent of the best work of Hal Ashby and Cameron Crowe. Sandler proves once again that he is a fine actor, and his performance as successful movie star/comedian George Simmons is tonally similar to his fantastic work in "Punch-Drunk Love" and "Reign Over Me." A very isolated man made rich by a number of films that look like rejected Wayans Brothers ideas, George lives in a castle of a house, complete with an indoor and an outdoor pool. His only obvious human contact consists of photo ops with his fans, and the servants at home that he keeps at arm's length. Early on he is diagnosed with a rare blood disorder for which no clear treatment exists. Death on his doorstep, he begins to examine his life. He hates himself, but that he let so many important relationships go to waste is something he hates even more. It's time for a change.
Enter Ira Wright (played tenderly by a slimmed-down Rogen), a struggling stand-up who works at a deli counter and lives on a pull-out couch and in the shadow of his successful roommates, comic Leo (Jonah Hill) and sitcom star Mark (Jason Schwartzman, who also co- wrote the simple acoustic score with Michael Andrews). Ira and George cross paths at a comedy club where George performs a self-loathing monologue that generates almost no laughs. Ira follows his act, trashing George's apparent depression. In spite of this, George hires Ira to be his right hand man, as a joke writer when he decides to return to stand-up, and as a general errand boy. The dynamic of this new relationship is unclear to Ira, but it seems like a foot in the door—and it sure beats serving macaroni salad to soccer moms.
What follows is a long road to recovery, physically and emotionally. I say long, because the movie runs almost 2 ½ hours—a daunting running time for a comedy or a drama. Anyone who has enjoyed Apatow's work as a director knows that his films have become incrementally longer. At times, I wished he would take the advice from the character Alan Tudyk played in "Knocked Up," as Katherine Heigl's boss who instructs her to not necessarily lose weight, but to "make everything tighter." I wouldn't know what to tighten exactly, because there are many excellent scenes. No matter. I would rather sit through 2 ½ hours of this than the same length of loud, racist pummeling robots. I hope there are other moviegoers out there that share my sentiment.
In addition to the great work by Sandler and Rogen, we have Mrs. Apatow, Leslie Mann. She plays Laura with great vulnerability, the love of George's life, left behind years ago when he cheated on her. She has since married the Australian version of George, Clarke (a hilarious if underused Eric Bana). They have a big house and two beautiful and funny daughters played by Apatow's and Mann's real-life daughters Maude and Iris, who also played Mann's and Paul Rudd's daughters in "Knocked Up." George and Laura reenter each other's lives and try to pick up the pieces, much to the dismay of the reserved, more morally-centered Ira.
There is an awful lot of movie to cover, so I will stop there. The screenplay, while thoughtful, emotional and at times hilarious, follows a non-structure that would infuriate Robert McKee. There is no three-act structure. There is no classic antagonist. The unusual pacing allows the story to unfold more like life in that way. I'm curious to see how this movie will be received by audiences expecting a typical Apatow film. The thing I appreciated most about "Funny People" is that Apatow takes huge risks with the ambitious goal of "making a very serious movie with twice as many jokes" as his previous films. That he more often than not achieves his goals is a remarkable feat, and while "Funny People" isn't a great movie, it shows you a fascinating side of show business, and more importantly, it makes one believe that we can look forward to a wonderful and varied body of work from an original and, maybe someday, great filmmaker.
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, many comedians as themselves. Director: Judd Apatow. Running Time: 140 Minutes. Rated: R for tons of crude language, and for sex and brief nudity.
Consensus: Expect a fascinating drama with fine acting and a few hearty laughs (if you can handle crude humor). Just don't expect the movie they show you parts of in the previews.