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Funny People (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 146 minutes.

Not for children.

This movie opens with an old video of star Adam Sandler and writer-director Judd Apatow making prank telephone calls, something they did when they were unknown roomies. They appear to be in their 20s. I made prank telephone calls with some friends when I was in grammar school. When I became a teenager, making prank telephone calls ceased to strike me as funny or entertaining. It’s perhaps a commentary on the intelligence of stand-up comics that they would still think something as juvenile and inconsiderate as this would be funny after they had become adults, and that they would entertain themselves by doing it. Although the youthful Sandler and Apatow are laughing uproariously in the grainy video, what they are doing is not funny. I’m not sure why Apatow would want to include this in a film seen by millions.

Despite the dismal start, Apatow has achieved a new plateau with this touching film about a superstar comedian, George Simmons (Sandler), who is told he has a rare form of leukemia and that his life is in grave danger. George has lived a selfish, lonely life. This news gives him a new perspective, and, he thinks, a chance to undo some of the things he has done and missed.

Apatow has created a film of unexpected depth and feeling, aided by superb performances by Sandler and Seth Rogen, who plays Ira Wright, a stand-up wannabe who gets hired by George as an assistant.

Actually, the relationship between George and Ira is somewhat autobiographical because many of the incidents are directly from the friendship between Apatow and Sandler who were roommates when both were struggling up the ladder of success.

Sandler gives the performance of his career. Although the film is replete with profanity and sexual allusions, Apatow staples, some might be understandable here because the players are stand-up comedians and that genre seems to survive on crotch and bodily function humor.

It didn’t used to be that way. Certainly vaudeville was raunchy, but comedians were not as gross as these, outside of Burlesque houses. Some might trace the downward thrust of stand-up comedy to Lenny Bruce, but Bruce was campaigning for a freer use of language. The subject matter really didn’t get as low class and in as poor taste as it is now until spurred on by Richard Pryor (“Richard Pryor Live in Concert,” 1979) and Eddie Murphy (“Raw,” 1987), whose routines were X-rated. Now it’s difficult to attend a stand-up club without being attacked by comedy routines that would be more appropriate in a gutter.

Maybe, and I hope this is true, this movie could stand as an allegory for Apatow’s career. George has become enormously successful making silly movies, like one where he appears with his own head superimposed on a baby’s body. The movies are silly but have made a lot of money. Apatow, like George, has been responsible for many films, like “Pineapple Express” (2008), for instance, that are so replete with f bombs and crotch humor that they can have a coarsening effect on society. As George gropes to return to a past life of lost opportunity to make amends and maybe become a better person, it might be surmised that Apatow has left his vulgar films behind and made a film that can set him on a better path. “Knocked Up,” despite its profanity, was an entertaining movie. This movie is a horse of a different color. While it does have bad language and disgusting jokes, they are minimized, and take a back seat to George’s journey. While there is some humor, this is a thoughtful film, not a comedy.

Although there is humor spread throughout, and although Sandler and Rogen have reputations as funnymen, the funniest person in the movie is Rogen’s roommate, Leo Koenig (Jonah Hill, another Apatow regular). Sandler and Rogen are more poignant than funny. Rogen, in particular, displays depth never before seen from him, although hinted at in the deplorable “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (2008).

The core of the film is Sandler’s disillusionment with his life and lost love, Laura (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife). She has a shaky marriage with her husband, Clarke (Eric Bana, who enters the film quite late but gives a wonderful performance despite his short screen time).

In addition to Mann, Apatow cast his two daughters, Maude and Iris, as Laura and Clarke’s children, Mable and Ingrid, respectively. Both give good performances.

Apatow recognizes the low tone of his movies, including this one, as he admitted that he did not allow his daughters to view it, even though they were in it. Asked how much of the movie they could see, he responded, “About 8 minutes.” While this might be funny, it would be nice if Judd thought about this and made some movies that his daughters could watch from beginning to end, because he is clearly a talented director and writer. This could have been such a movie. The vulgar language and jokes added nothing, except to detract from it.

July 30, 2009