By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
It is too long and rather imperfect. Still, as Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” chronicles the life and times of comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler), you bask in the film’s warmhearted sense of humanity, laugh at the foibles dissected, and in time realize it is not unlike real life. That is, you have to put up with the bad parts to enjoy the good parts.
Writer-director Apatow, though obviously aware of his project’s problematic nature, boldly goes forth undeterred. It is a story worth telling, even if sometimes too meandering to be cinematic. Precariously careening along his creative path, arms full of fascinating philosophies and clamoring emotions, he at times turns his traipse into a beautiful waltz.
As the protagonist, comic extraordinaire George Simmons, Adam Sandler gets the joke, as well as the tragedy, at the heart of this refurbished Pagliacci. In one scene, despondent and suddenly catapulting toward middle-aged mundanity, Sandler makes his heretofore virile celebrity sag into total beanbag mode. This is a solid performance.
Doomed by a medical prognosis that comes out of left field, George begins his ascent to the epiphany-driven repentance literature so often dictates for those who’ve failed to live an exemplary life. A lot of bad feelings were scattered in the wake of his rise to the top. Sis hates him. He never sees his parents. And yep, he let the love of his life get away.
But it’s no fun making amends or resurrecting a dream for only the fourth wall to applaud. A pal is in order…a Nick to your Gatsby. And therefore, doubtless also to assuage the loneliness of his plight, and maybe even do a good deed in the bargain, George plucks from obscurity would-be comic Ira Wright to be his Man Friday.
Let the soul searching begin. Sure, on the surface, Ira, superbly played by Seth Rogen, has been hired to write jokes for George, who has decided to embark on a series of stand-up engagements…a swansong tour, if you will. But in truth Ira is put in that enigmatic position of the paid friend. His moralisms and advice are sought, but then they’re not.
It all depends on the king’s mood and how it suits his vanity at the moment. It’s not easy being the court jester. There are humiliations. But then Ira has suddenly skyrocketed from working in a deli by day and begging for a few minutes onstage at the improv by night to traveling on a private jet with a major comedy domo and taking down $1.5 K a week.
Not that the comic novitiate is free of fault. A sin of omission comprises one of the movie’s three sub-plots. You see, Ira was supposed to let his friend Leo (Jonah Hill) in on the joke writing action. A sarcastic love/hate competition among Ira, Leo and their successful sitcom roomy, Mark (Jason Schwartzman), provides a steady stream of laughs.
The second underplot concerns Ira’s attempts to woo Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), an aspiring comedienne Mark has called dibs on, in the event Ira doesn’t “make his move” within ten days. Such adolescent backbiting, equivocating and needling raunchily sugarcoats the dire seriousness with which the three struggling humorists view their career ambitions.
And then there’s the case of Laura (Leslie Mann), the soul mate George let slip from his fickle grasp. She is now married with children and living up north in San Francisco. No matter. In his conceit, and with the privilege dying folk grant themselves, he seeks to make amends, and maybe even more. Ira accompanies him on the momentous mission.
But oops! Dropping in to surprise George, Ira and her Lady Fair is Laura’s oft roving, businessman husband (Eric Bana). There is hubbub aplenty: people entering and exiting rooms. As moods and motives switch by the second, the movie becomes “Funny People: Part #2,” but without benefit of intermission or delineation. Hence comes the lag.
The thing is, by this point the viewer has invested enough emotion into the characters to care about their fate, the film’s sudden switch in temperament notwithstanding. Here’s a good time to visit the facilities or get a popcorn refill. On return you’ll find passports put in order and the plot switched to its new tracks. In time the rough transition is forgiven.
Indulgence has its rewards. Aside from the bittersweet saga of George’s search for grace, there are pearls of wisdom about long lost love and whether or not one can indeed change his stripes. And, adding to the standup ethos Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night” (1992) analyzed, “Funny People” hilariously shows why comedy isn’t always a laughing matter.
“Funny People,” rated R, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Judd Apatow and stars Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Leslie Mann. Running time: 146 minutes
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