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FUNNY PEOPLE (2009) ***1/2 movie review by COOP

Posted on August 7th, 2009
Posted on August 7th, 2009


First and foremost, “Funny People” is not a comedy so don’t let the ad campaign or the title fool you.  It’s actually a drama about comedians.  Judd Apatow has crossed the border from his usual raucous and raunchy laugh-fests into more sincere territory.  With an all-star cast including Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Bana, Leslie Mann and Aziz Ansari; audiences will no doubt find plenty to laugh at, but the overall somber tone of the film might turn off comedy fans.    

George Simmons (Sandler), the highest paid comedian/movie star in Hollywood discovers he has a rare and fatal blood disease.  Bitter and regretful of his past misdeeds and excesses, he attempts to tie up loose ends while wallowing in self-loathing.  He hires a nobody deli-counter employee/comedian, Ira (Rogan), to write jokes and become his personal assistant.  While Ira takes care of Simmons and accompanies him to his various gigs, the two form an unusual bond.  This friendship becomes strained when Simmons bullies Ira into helping him win back his former love Laura (Mann) despite the fact she’s married to Clarke (Bana), a successful businessman with whom she has two children.  Ira becomes torn between doing what he believes is right and destroying a friendship… not to mention putting his future as a comedian in jeopardy.

Sandler plays a dark version of himself here so it’s hard to determine whether to give him full credit for his performance.  The audience would hate him immediately if we didn’t accompany him to hear of his own death sentence within the first ten minutes.  This instant pathos allows us to feel sorry for him before we learn of what a jerk he has been before this devastating news.  While I believe he delivers the finest performance of his career, it feels too close to Sandler’s reality to consider it a stretch of his abilities.

What makes Sandler’s character work is how he plays off of Seth Rogan’s wide-eyed and charismatic Ira.  Likewise, Ira’s career situation seems believably similar to where Rogan probably was only a few years ago, giving the film another close-to-reality element.  When the characters meet and interact, they have chemistry despite vast differences.  They play off each other in what feels like ad-libbing, an area we all know Sandler and Rogan excel in.  A natural flow forms between the two making the friendship seem organic and real.  The flow feels awkward only when the script calls for conflict and drama, otherwise their interaction results in some golden comedic moments. 

The film’s other secret weapon comes from the supporting characters, played by up and coming comedic actors who, like Sandler and Rogan, portray alternate-reality versions of themselves.  Ira’s roommates Leo (Hill), a more successful stand-up comic, and Mark (Schwartzman), star of a terrible sitcom called “Yo Teach!” tease Ira by flaunting their paychecks and bragging about their gigs.  Their moments with Ira rank among the best scenes in the film.  Almost stealing the show out from under everyone is Aziz Ansari as Raaaaandy whose very name implies his comedic act which is a parody of the most immature and foul-mouthed of comedians. 

The weak part of the story happens towards the end as Simmons attempts to re-seduce Laura and outwit her husband Clarke with Ira as a reluctant accomplice.  Leslie Mann finally proves why she usually gets sidelined as a supporting character.  Her Laura comes off as so flakey and insincere that I found her completely unlikable… but I guess being married to the director has its advantages.  Bana, who got his start playing comedic roles in his native Australia, looks at home as the sleazy, yet big-hearted Clarke.  His villainous tone at the beginning makes a surprise turn to sympathetic in several scenes, making the viewer feel less sympathy for Simmons and Ira, a turn that – unfortunately for the film – nearly derails the entire ending.    

Despite its faults, “Funny People” achieves a dubious honor in my book as the best drama I’ve seen about comedians.  I found past efforts like “Punchline,” “Mr. Saturday Night,” “The King of Comedy” and “Man on the Moon” tedious due to unlikable main characters and sidelining comedy as an afterthought rather than effectively integrating it into the story.  “Funny People” will make you laugh often between the drama and stand-up acts, something I don’t believe the other films quite accomplished.  Plus, I found something to like in (nearly) all of the characters, including the morose and angry George Simmons. 

In true Apatow form, the film falls firmly in the raunchy, R-rated category.  Although I enjoyed it immensely, it might discourage viewers averse to juvenile humor.  On the opposite side of the fence, the fans of Sandler’s and Rogan’s usual comedy films could find the grim drama a distraction from the laughs.  But, if you’re able to set aside your expectations, you may enjoy this oddity of a film.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Some of the best things about “FUNNY PEOPLE” include the viral marketing. Here’s a clip from the fake sitcome “Yo Teach!”…

And a clip from Ansari’s character Raaandy’s hilarous (and R-rated!) standup routine…

And finally the (R-rated, redband) trailer…

-C

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