It is an incredibly moving relationship to watch develop as the two men move further away from the teacher-student dynamic and closer to being equals.
In Funny People, from writer/director Judd Apatow, there are two stories struggling to be told in a coherent and touching manner. Unfortunately, neither gets the attention it deserves, which makes the movie feel slightly jumbled and poorly focused. The first story the movie sets up involves one of the biggest comedians and movie stars in the world, George Simmons (Adam Sandler), finding out that he has a terminal disease which leads to him rediscovering his sense of belonging in small stand-up comedy clubs thereby forming a relationship with a young comic, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). The second story, which begins sluggishly halfway through the movie, is about how George realizes that Laura (Leslie Mann), the woman he cheated on and lost many years ago, was the greatest thing that ever happened to him, and his attempt to get her back.
Both stories are equally engaging and either would have made for a terrific movie, especially with Apatow’s gift for comedy and a wonderful cast, including many Apatow regulars. Watching Ira struggle to find his voice as a stand-up is wonderfully entertaining, especially as his roommates Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman) make success look so easy. George pretends to use Ira only as a writer and assistant, but it is clear that he needs someone close to him as he deals with his disease and his inevitable death. Ira tours with him, handles his day-to-day duties, and even talks him to sleep. It is an incredibly moving relationship to watch develop as the two men move further away from the teacher-student dynamic and closer to being equals.
But then there is the other story. The one where George seizes the opportunity to have Laura back in his life, and even manages to spend some time with her daughters (Apatow and Mann’s real-life daughters) before Laura’s husband, Clarke (Eric Bana), returns from a business trip and interrupts the happiness. The span of the movie that takes place at Laura and Clarke’s home feels too mindless and easy for an Apatow movie, but might be the right kind of stuff for Matthew McConaughey.
The movie is very funny, but mainly due to the supporting players like Hill and Schwartzman who turn in terrific performances as Ira’s closest friends and biggest rivals. Aziz Ansari has only a few scenes as Randy, another comic with a very different style than Ira. There isn’t nearly enough of him in the movie, but have no fear. There are plenty of Randy videos floating around on the Internet now.
Apatow has also recruited all sorts of celebrities to appear as themselves throughout the movie. The way he does it, though, never gets tired or repetitive because this is the life George leads. He only knows famous people. He has no relationship with his parents or sister, no friends outside of the entertainment business, and doesn’t even know how to connect with regular people aside from spewing one of his catchphrases or making a silly face.
This may be the most disappointing aspect of the movie. Apatow and Sandler together could have created a very touching story about a man at the center of attention who is terribly lonely and no one knows it. Instead, Apatow tries to stretch his range by bringing a more serious tone to the movie, but with all that he’s trying to accomplish, it just feels forced and shallow. | Matthew F. Newlin