Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Serious Sandler: Funny People (Mostly) Succeeds.

The Good: Good performances, Interesting characters, Moments of empathy/themes
The Bad: Mood is often oppressive, Pacing issues
The Basics: Adam Sandler effectively delves into his dramatic side with Funny People, a Judd Apatow flick that reasserts the writer/director’s ability to plumb the depths of drama . . . with mixed results.

Regardless of how both films might have underwhelmed at the box office, Judd Apatow’s Funny People owes quite a debt to P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (reviewed here!). Punch-Drunk Love was the first major film to truly use Saturday Night Live alum Adam Sandler in a dramatic role with any real success. Funny People also explores Sandler’s ability to play a deeply serious role and had Punch-Drunk Love not softened American audiences up for such a twist from the comedian, it might have been even more off-putting than the film already was.

Unfortunately, Judd Apatow’s endeavor into getting a serious performance out of Adam Sandler feels more clogged and problematic than Anderson’s more compact, focused role for Sandler. Sandler’s ability to play rage in Punch-Drunk Love plays somewhat better than his character’s apathy in Funny People and the somewhat sprawling nature of this film. Even so, George Simmons is one of Sandler’s better performances and more memorable roles following his career in dippy comedy blockbusters. Sandler makes Simmons substantive and compelling to watch, even if he is not always interesting.

George Simmons is a highly successful comedian who came up from the stand-up circuit before he started making million-dollar blockbusters and became one of the highest grossing actors in America. Depressed and somewhat lethargic, Simmons encounters aspiring comedian Ira Wright and his roommate, Leo Koenig. Wright hates his job serving sandwiches and he leaps at the opportunity to write jokes for Simmons for a MySpace event – if for no other reason than to show up his hack roommate Mark. After the big event, Ira begins working for George and George admits to his new assistant that he is dying of leukemia. As George has Ira start selling off his stockpiles of swag, he starts pining for the woman who got away, Laura.

Ira finds working for Simmons to be a largely losing proposition. Working for George keeps him distracted, which gives Mark time to move in on his love interest, Daisy. It does, however, get him some exposure on the stand-up circuit, but he finds that hanging out with Simmons doesn’t get him laid and he gets mired in Simmons’ depression. But as Simmons wrestles with his own mortality, Ira helps him find Laura and George disrupts her unhappy marriage. The result makes Ira a witness to a life he has always dreamed of having and forces him to decide if it is the way he wants to live going forward.

Funny People departs from Judd Apatow’s other films by, despite the title, being anything but a comedy. The film reminds viewers of the more character-based, dramatic moments that made Apatow’s Freaks & Geeks (reviewed here!) a cult-smash. Unfortunately, while Seth Rogen has no trouble embodying a serious Apatow-written character (Rogen plays Ira), the role has him meandering around the much more cinematically-powerful Sandler. Even when Sandler’s Simmons is acting bored and depressed, Rogen is unable to steal the spotlight from him. The more significant character journey in Funny People is, arguably, Wright’s arc, but Rogen does not make the film feel like it is truly his.

To his credit, writer-director Judd Apatow manages to create a film where almost every significant (male, at least) stand-up comedian alive shows up. For sure, many – like Paul Reiser, Norm MacDonald, and Dave Attell – have roles that are little more than cameos, but the fact that they show up at all makes the world of Funny People feel very real and the drama within it compelling.

That said, Funny People takes far too long to get going. Apatow thoroughly develops the relationship between Simmons and Wright and by the time the viewer is bored with the two of them, the film makes the shift into the relationship between Simmons and Laura. When that transition is made, Wright becomes something of a hapless sidekick and his role as witness robs him of a character arc where he actually keeps real control over his life. Instead, he reacts to how Simmons throws a bombshell into Laura’s family and the result hardly makes Wright compelling. Apatow alum Leslie Mann plays a less-bitchy version of her prior characters and Apatow makes viewers wait for Eric Bana long past the point that he is able to carry any enthusiasm from seeing his name in the opening credits.

Bana and Mann have pretty poor on-screen chemistry, but their characters are supposed to be estranged, so it is hard to complain too much about that. Unfortunately, Sandler and Mann have no real on-screen charm together and the result is that it is hard for viewers to be convinced that they have more of a chance than the married couple that seems set in every way, but the passion department. The problem with Funny People is that none of the characters have innate chemistry with the others: Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman lack real chemistry with Seth Rogen in Funny People, so it is off-putting at the beginning even to make the viewers believe that they are all actually roommates!

Despite the chemistry problems and the fact that Mann plays a very familiar type of character, Funny People is well-acted. Seth Rogen plays the up and coming, very awkward comedian well and Jason Schwartzman plays the jackass roommate with complete plausibility. Jonah hill is fine as Leo, though his character does not get nearly angry enough when Ira’s big secret is finally revealed to him.

But that is the way of Funny People: the film takes a long time setting up, developing, redirecting and expositing until, like life, if just goes nowhere. That makes it a film with so many winning elements, but an ultimately underwhelming resolution and execution.

For other works with Eric Bana, please visit my reviews of:
The Time Traveler’s Wife
Star Trek


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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