- Even the ride is funny: from left, Adam Sandler, Leslie Mann and Seth Rogen
Although it seems like he's done a lot more, Judd Apatow has written-and-directed only three movies, the third of which, Funny People, is his best. He produced Year One, Pineapple Express, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad and others, and he directed episodes of his TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. But so far there have been just three actual films "by" Judd Apatow.
His earlier two hits as a writer/director were enjoyable little movies about modern sex, but neither of them seemed particularly true, despite their candid talk about intercourse and anatomy. Do we believe Steve Carell could really be a virgin at 40, so inept that he can't get laid when he has the opportunity? Or that Katherine Heigl, no matter how drunk, would sleep with Seth Rogen, get knocked up, decide to have his baby, and pursue a relationship with him? The men in these movies especially exhibit a kind of sophomoric maturity, like Beavis or Butt-Head, all grown up.
If making your movies longer and longer is a sign of growth as an artist, then Apatow might finally be out of puberty. Funny People is almost two-and-a-half hours long -- 20 minutes longer than Knocked Up, and a half-hour longer than The 40-Year-Old Virgin. That's a long time to spend with someone who's dying.
I mean that literally, not in the sense of a bad comedy act. Funny People revolves around George Simmons (Adam Sandler, Apatow's old friend and muse), a famous comic actor who learns that he has incurable leukemia, and who sets out to rediscover -- well, something. He drops by a comedy club for the first time in years, and in doing so, meets Ira Wright (Rogen), a hapless young comic with no life experience and no personality. Perhaps because he's dying, or perhaps because he sees something in Ira, George hires him to be his personal assistant and joke-writer. Together they begin a bittersweet journey of self-discovery. (Imagine that sentence being spoken by the narrator of the previews of coming attractions.)
Funny stuff, eh? And yet, it's very funny, with a few good jokes in every scene, and a big laugh every five minutes or so. Apatow seems to have discovered the yin and yang of human existence: Laughing is the opposite of dying, so you might as well chose to do a lot of one before you're forced to do the other. He's a voluble writer, the Jewish Kevin Smith, you could say, although perhaps Kevin Smith is the Catholic Judd Apatow. (Protestants, it's well known, are not funny.)
This volubility accounts in part for his movie's length, but also, I think, for its lack of dimension. Apatow writes too much, and Funny People rarely juggles more than one emotion at a time. Has fame made George so self-absorbed and callow, or is it just because he's a guy? Apatow toys with this idea the way a puppy toys with your shoe. As good as Sandler and Rogen are, they're not that good at giving it all some nuance. Somewhat better are Leslie Mann, as George's long-lost love (he cheated, she walked), and Eric Bana, as her raffish Aussie husband. They're actors, not comics, so they say things funny, rather than saying funny things.
Sandler has two personae in his work, a boring comic one (goofy voices) and a more affecting melancholy one. He's also superb at standup. Rogen as an actor is a bit like Ira as a character: He's a Rorschach to which we must ascribe our own meaning because he has none himself. Ira has never faced adversity ("all my grandparents are alive"), so he's pathetic onstage, and every time George gives him a chance to break out, he crawls back into his pitiful nothingness, which becomes both interesting and frustrating to watch. (I lost track of who I'm talking about: the actor or the character.)
Apatow's life lessons in Funny People are thoroughly familiar. His parody of show business is too, but now and then, like the puppy, it has some teeth. We catch up with George's banal career in faux films like Re-Do (George's talking head on a baby's body) and Merman (needs no explanation). They've made him rich, and he hates himself for it. As usual, Apatow asks us to believe some things that we simply can't (like: George has no friends), and he lets his characters quickly discuss their way out of everything rather than keeping it messy for even a short while.
But like I said, it's funny. Rogen gets good support from Jason Schwartzman as his roommate, an actor who plays a high school teacher on a moronic NBC sit-com, and from Jonah Hill, another roommate and rising comic. The humor is adult in the sense that they say "dick" and "fuck" a lot, often very wittily, and Apatow even gets off a very good Holocaust joke (hard to do, let's face it). Over and over he reminds us that comedy is an act of spiritual violence: Every time a good comedian kills, a little bit of the audience dies right along with him.