As a 35 year-old man, my anticipation for the new comedy Funny People was tantamount to the exuberance I felt during my youth for The Empire Strikes Back or Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom – you know, back when I was sporting Underroos and playing with G.I. Joe and He-Man toys. I suppose my excitement for an “adult” movie is part of growing up (although I still get giddy for a juicy, brainless summer popcorn release) , but it’s also a testament to how highly I regard Judd Apatow’s previous films, The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. These are movies, while chock full of crude, bawdy and over-the-top humor, deal with quietly embedded issues that many, if not all, of us wrangle with on a daily basis as we move through life. And after seeing the first trailer for Funny People, I thought Mr. Apatow had done it again; in fact, I was thinking he might even enter Oscar territory.
But I was wrong. Funny People is hugely disappointing. I laughed from time-to-time, but there was nothing connecting the laughs, the everyman heart and soul that embodied The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up was replaced with a story about life as a stand-up comic and life as a rich celebrity that’s just not palatable for me. I had three main problems with Funny People.
First and foremost, the film is stunningly aimless. I’m not sure if Apatow was trying too hard to be subtle and avoid a heavy hand, but for the most part we are led slowly down a path that seems more like winks and nods toward the workings and celebrity mingling of Hollywood than it does, as the trailer suggests, the journey of a man, a famous comedian, who changes and looks at life through a different lens and resolves to live it differently. We spend 90% of the movie with Sandler learning and dealing with the revelation he is going to die, followed by the news his treatment has worked and he now will live. We see him go through ups and downs, but it all leads to an emotionally unsatisfactory finale, where Sandler is the same manipulative douche he was in the beginning. My problem isn’t with the concept of an imperfect character or imperfect conclusions; I just don’t appreciate how long it took to get to such a simple and unfulfilling ending.
Second, I really didn’t bond with or care for the characters. These stand-up comedians and Hollywood-types probably resonate deeply within Apatow’s soul because this is the world in which he lives, but for me, Ordinary Joe, it’s hard to relate to a comedian/actor whose daily routine is a mix of swimming in his fancy pool, driving to the Improv in his souped-up Escalade and spending many-a-night boinking comedy groupies. I felt some attachment to the struggle Seth Rogan and his roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman) faced everyday between the realities of paying the bills and the dreams of stardom, and I even felt a relation to the marital ups and downs of Eric Bana and Leslie Mann, but with the main focus of the movie on Sandler, I didn’t ever fully connect.
I should also point out there is no performance in this movie worthy of any Oscar consideration. Period. Roger Ebert calls this Sandler’s best movie and I completely disagree. He also notes this movie is a different turn for Seth Rogan, saying “much thinner, dialed down, with more dimensions.” Again, I completely disagree. I see the same monotone, self-depreciating Seth Rogan. The only difference is he is slimmer, but nothing else.
Lastly, Apatow’s humor is sporadic and uneven. True, there are some funny moments, mainly dialogue between Rogan and his roommates, but I was amazed at how every joke seemed to center on the penis. In fact, in one scene, at a MySpace corporate event Sandler and Rogan attend, the musical entertainment, James Taylor, is asked by Rogan if he ever tires of singing the same song and Taylor responds with, “Do you ever get tired of talking about your dick?” I laughed, but by the end of the movie I was tired of all the weiner jokes. Not because I was offended (although one couple did walk out within the first 30 minutes), but because it got stale.
Funny People won the box office weekend by earning more than $23 million, but I’d expect it to take a huge drop next weekend and probably slide silently out of the top ten before the end of August. Worse, I can’t see this nominated for any Oscars whatsoever. Not best director, best original screenplay or any acting awards. It’s a self-indulgent editorial by Apatow littered with too many nods and winks to those he loves in the industry. I appreciate the effort, but I just don’t love the final product.