FUNNY PEOPLE is no 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN or KNOCKED UP. The key thing to know about that: it isn't trying to be. Some have called FUNNY PEOPLE a failure because it fails to live up to the sheer comedic bliss those two movies provide. While it is VERY funny and has thrice the laughs that most comedies provide, it has a bit more serious business to attend to.
VIRGIN was a comedy about a shy man who was almost deathly afraid to get to know women because of this giant "virginess" hanging over his head. The movie was mostly funny, but succeeded because their were genuine moments of tenderness and understanding.
KNOCKED UP was a comedy about two VERY different people who get drunk, conceive a child and then decide, against all odds to not only bring the baby into the world, but to try to be a couple for that child. It showed, in a side story, the on-the-edge marriage of another couple, who were filled with seeming unstoppable bitterness at each other. There were some sobering moments, but overall, it was a feel-good film that explored some tough subjects but found generally congenial ways to move on.
FUNNY PEOPLE refuses easy answers and "happy" solutions. It deals with heavier subject matter, and doesn't shy away from them. Therefore, it is sometimes less "fun" that Director/Writer Judd Apatow's other films (above). It is sometimes uneven in tone, and there is a bit too much wallowing in the old idea that behind the mask of a comedian lies the face of sadness or tragedy. Any film that asks us to feel sorry for a wildly successful, famous person has a bit of an uphill struggle.
But Apatow still mostly pulls it off. He's got a tough juggling act, and seldom looses sight of the balls...although his act goes on about 20 minutes too long (the film is two hours & 25 minutes long, and doesn't quite earn the "extra" time).
FUNNY PEOPLE stars Adam Sandler as a highly successful, very famous stand-up turned movie star (much like a certain Adam Sandler in real life). He's made a lot of terrible movies, but they've given him a luxurious and decadent lifestyle, one that has also isolated him a bit from the world. When he receives a poor diagnosis from his doctor, and seems almost certain to die soon from a form of leukemia...he starts to take out his feelings on one of his audiences at an amateur improv night that he has crashed. The unknown comic who follows him (Seth Rogan), ends up making up some jokes about Sandler's meltdown...and he slays the audience and gets the attention of Sandler, who hires Rogan to write jokes for him and to serve as his assistant.
Rogan essentially becomes Sandler's confidant...because Sandler has no friends. While he lives a hedonistic lifestyle, he clearly pines for the "one who got away," Leslie Mann. Mann is now married to Eric Bana, has two lovely daughters (Maude & Iris Apatow...essentially reprising their roles from KNOCKED UP), and is unavailable to Sandler.
The growing relationship between these two men makes up the first half of the movie, as Sandler goes through various ways of coping or planning for his demise. Rogan is also able to ride Sandler's coattails a bit, and begins to mature as a stand-up himself.
Into this mix we also have Rogan's two roommates, Jonah Hill, playing another aspiring comic, and Jason Schwartzman, another friend who has just landed a starring role in what looks like a terrible sitcom on something like ABC Family or Disney network. The dynamics between these three roommates are hilarious, believable and would almost make their own movie. In fact, it's easy to say that they should have been left out so that the film could focus more...but this would make the movie TOO insular, too isolated & lonely. Rogan HAS a life...a dysfunctional one, true...but a life. Sandler, by contrast, has STUFF.
Things take a probably not too surprising turn at roughly the midpoint of the film. (If you've seen the trailers, you know what I mean.) And thus, it is required to take off in a different direction. Sandler's character, in particular, is given some real opportunities (Rogan is something of an afterthought for awhile)...and his opportunities sure look like they're going to play out in a very predictable manner. But Apatow has some genuine surprises hidden up his sleeve.
In the end, almost no one gets quite what they expected, and yet everyone HAS been given a gift of some sort as well. As the film wrapped up, the mood was somber, sad even...but not without hope. As our two leads trade crude jokes across a dining table, the film fades out on our laughter...laughter that we're glad to use to cover up the sadness we're feeling.
As I mentioned, the idea of the comic as some sort of tortured soul is a bit hard to buy hook, line & sinker. Apatow and his whole team are very funny people, and they want the audience to "feel their pain," I suppose. And we do, as we become engaged with the characters, but still, I always felt just a little removed from the idea that blistering, funny comedy can only be masking ancient hurts and raw emotions. Isn't anyone funny just because they're happy? For every tortured comedian out there (Richard Pryor, Jackie Gleason), aren't there some who are a little more stable (Bob Newhart comes to mind)?
Yet Apatow is also pretty daring in some ways. He makes us feel a bit sorry for Sandler, but he also lets us see that Sandler is an a**hole. We think that underneath the exterior we see of a jerk, there must lie a gentler, more human heart. And there does. But truly at the core, there is still an a**hole. Sandler doesn't shy away from that reality...and in the end, it is his performance that makes this film work. Everyone is very good in the film...but it is Sandler whose journey we're really following, and he knocks it out of the park. One can argue that his role is within his comfort zone, but from what I understand, Sandler is actually happily married and has been for some time. He even has friends. So he's playing the version of himself that COULD have been...but however you care to characterize it...he's allowing himself to show some raw emotion that is occasionally very effective.
Leslie Mann is always a welcome, sparkling presence...but her character also goes places we might not expect. Jonah Hill & Jason Schwartzman do riffs on their usual personas, but in the end, they reach just a little deeper and find something true. Rogan (thankfully skinner & healthier...although still a schlub) reigns himself in when appropriate and feels more like a real person than he has before. And Eric Bana, in what should have been a cardboard role, is allowed to both have fun at his own expense and to show some real emotion. (And James Taylor makes a brief cameo in which he is given one of the funniest lines in the film.)
So there is much to admire, indeed. But I can't quite give the film my most enthusiastic embrace because it's a bit too long, and that length feels like unneeded navel gazing. I recommend it, but I doubt I'll be returning to it very often in the future.