Funny People will go down in history as the moment when Judd Apatow, a writer-director who had so skillfully and wonderfully balanced comedy and drama in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, fell victim to his own moralizing, created a maudlin drama without a single likeable character, and forgot that no matter how authentic a film feels, it’s still a film, and its purpose is to tell a story. Real life is dull, and rambling, and peppered with moments of interest that only begin to shape an arc when viewed in retrospect. The best filmmakers take those moments, that feeling of being trapped in the same existential dilemma facing us all, and weave them into a compelling, engaging, entertaining story. That’s what Apatow did so well with his first two features, marrying wackier aspects of blue comedy with increasingly self-aware and self-referential stories that guided his protagonists through the emotional changes in their lives. Those were serious movies disguised as “raunchy” comedies, pouncing on audiences with their guard down and setting themselves apart as some of the best American comedies in recent years. But Funny People is meandering when it should be pointed, cruel when it should be conciliatory, and most of all, empty when it should be revelatory. Apatow has proven that he can create watchable characters and then have them move believably through an epic change in their lives — no mean feat to do on film, let alone twice in a row — but his new film confuses trying to say something with actually saying it. There were good moments hiding in the idea of this film, long before it ever took on this lumbering life of its own, but we’ll never know what they could have been. All we know is that, once again, Apatow’s made a film about heartbreak, but this time, he’s the one doing the breaking.
George Simmons is a comedian in his 40s who came up in comedy clubs and shots on MTV before transitioning into mindless films he made just for the paychecks; the part is as perfectly tailored for Adam Sandler as possible, who started appearing in feature films in 1989, didn’t use a human-sounding voice on screen until 1998, and didn’t attempt any kind of dramatic edge until 2002. After being diagnosed with a form of leukemia, he tries to dive back into the world of stand-up, appearing at the Improv one night and accidentally bumping Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) down the lineup. Ira is a young comic still struggling to find his voice: He knows he can be funny, he just has trouble turning his ambition into content. Ira takes a few jabs at George in his set, George takes a liking to the young man, and before you know it, he’s hired him to write some material and serve as his assistant. If this sounds a little disjointed, it is; rather than flow organically, too many of the film’s plot points seem glued together as if Apatow wanted to talk about all of them but didn’t quite know how to make it work. The first act of the film is the clearest, when George begins to reexamine the life he’s led and what his fame has cost him — he’s exiled himself from his parents and sister, and the only woman he ever loved is long out of the picture — and tries to impart that knowledge to Ira, who’s so fired up and excited about his career path that George almost remembers what it is to be young and desirous of everything the world has to offer. George has Ira write material for a corporate gig they reach via private jet, and Rogen believably conveys Ira’s awe at being dropped into a higher life than he knew existed.
But after beginning to develop a legitimately interesting argument about the perils of selling out and how you go about recapturing the skill and fire of youth, Apatow moves off in another direction, not so much letting go of the burgeoning plot as letting it drift lazily away. Ira’s comedy chops improve as he spends time with George, but George uses him as a whipping boy more than anything else. George is also still hung up on Laura (Leslie Mann), the one good woman he ever spent time with and who left him 12 years earlier after tiring of his incessant cheating. Thus, the film’s central question becomes not about what kind of man George will become but whether he’ll hook back up with his ex, which needless to even say is a far more limiting problem. More importantly, though, is Apatow’s increasing addiction to tell the audience everything he knows instead of everything they need to know, meaning that the film is overlong and clunky, nervously shaking between stories and arcs without ever holding them together. George’s fight against his disease and pursuit of Laura are mutually exclusive in the script, each plot casually mentioning the other but never really connected. As a result, the entire film becomes trapped in what passes for an emotional hall of mirrors, as each of its increasingly isolating 146 minutes is spent on commenting on its own existence. The movie is about the movie, not the people in it.
All of which is a shame, because Apatow’s working with a talented cast and dealing with potentially gripping subject matter. Sandler, like all aging comics, really wants to be taken seriously, and he’s solid enough in the role of George that he earns more credence as a dramatic performer. Rogen is affable enough, downshifting from the arrogant goof of Knocked Up into a more nebbish one here, though that weakness of character makes him weirdly less endearing; this guy is at his best when he’s a caustic lead with a confusing soft side (cf. “Freaks and Geeks”), and this time around he’s a little lost. Similarly, Mann plays a more toned-down version of the energetic mother Apatow made her in Knocked Up, but by placing her in a troubled marriage, Apatow makes her less sympathetic. That’s not an inherent mistake, and in fact a sign that Apatow’s willing to work with genuinely darker and more complicated material than most comedic filmmakers, but the execution falters. Characters don’t have to be blameless to be likeable, but they do need to feel honest, like they adhere to the rules of a particular filmic universe. In that regard, the best of the lot is Clarke (Eric Bana), Laura’s doltish and mildly adulterous husband. He’s the only one to ever come close to realizing what it means to change, and his moment of contrition is the only real one in the film.
That’s the real difference between Funny People and Apatow’s earlier work: the hero’s ability to change. Viewed as a cycle, Apatow began with a film about coming of sexual maturity, then one about the trials of young adulthood, and he’s now added one about the reflections of middle age. But Andy Stitzer and Ben Stone evolved in their comedies, while George Simmons makes only the smallest movements toward something better than himself. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fact that Apatow now seems determined to make dramas sprinkled with comedy instead of the beautiful hybrids he’d made before, and dramas are all about missing the opportunity that gets handed out freely in a comedy. But to rob George of that chance to reinvent himself is to deny him one of the things that makes him human, and that’s something Apatow’s never done before. There’s an old axiom that regular people laugh at jokes, but comedians just say, “That’s funny.” Apatow too often forsakes the former at the expense of the latter, creating a comedy that’s distinctly unfunny and treats humor as an object instead of a subject. Watching Funny People, the most common reaction I had was regret.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.