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Judd Apatow is an enigma. He is the idol of all freaks and geeks out there, calling the beautiful and talented Leslie Mann his wife and having a career any comedian would sell his soul for. He has created, in my opinion, a major hit with 40 Year-Old Virgin and a minor disappointment in Knocked Up, while having the time to also produce some gems that may supercede his own work on the side. So, the release of Funny People, (does the poster actually say “the third film from”? Wow, even Tarantino waited until his fourth for that kind of deserved ego), held my attention more for the direction Judd would go—up to his roots or down further into more sentimentality at the detriment of the jokes. Everything from the promotional machine got my hopes up and when it began—commencing with old, grainy, real-life home video of Adam Sandler as a young twenty-something—I started to think, “yes, he is back to the funny”. I’d be lying to say the jokes go a mile a minute and the runtime flies by, but I’d also be leading you astray if I didn’t say how funny these people really are.

Do not take the trailers as law. In fact, many of the bits in the teases are recut, taken out of context, or deleted scenes. Even when a moment started in which I thought I knew how it would go, I was usually surprised in the end result. Yes, the main plot point concerning our lead as a successful, vulgar comedian turned castrated kid’s film star, (sound a little like Sandler himself? How about a dead ringer for Eddie Murphy?), who learns of his impending mortality at the hands of a rare form of leukemia stays intact. And, yes, his experimental treatment does overtake the infected cells running through his blood, as the advertisements so nicely ruin for us. But, for the most part, that storyline is actually the worst part of the movie as a whole. Despite the premise allowing for the situations that bring the big laughs—most dealing with the brilliant stand-up and improv routines, because a man facing death of course goes back to his roots, to a time where he felt truly happy and fulfilled—it is the love lost aspect that derails all momentum and drags the second half into soap opera-y schmaltz. I credit Apatow for ending the personal affairs realistically when he could have taken the road most traveled and given us the super duper happy ending, but for an almost two and a half hour film, that portion could have been cut extensively because, frankly, we don’t need to see, nor are we interested in, his redemption.

It is the first hour, pertaining to the illness and his coping mechanisms to get through it, along with the creative evolution of young Ira Wright, (Seth Rogen), that goes so quickly you will literally ask out loud why it all went away when Leslie Mann’s Laura, the love of Sandler’s George’s life, re-enters the fray. The second half has some merit, especially in its creed of, “if you love something, don’t let it get away”, however, it pales in comparison to the laugh riot that was the start. In this regard, Funny People becomes somewhat bi-polar, not quite sure of itself on whether to continue being a straight comedy or needing to be a dramatic hybrid. This confusion goes on until the end, a conclusion that works with the first ending, becomes contrived in its second finish, and inevitably stops as we all knew it would with the third and last finale, a slow zoom out from our stars.

But let’s get back to the jokes, and the personalities, and the flat-out hilarious sprinkling of characters—both fictional and real. There is a great moment with Eminem and Ray Romano, a hilarious bit from Paul Reiser, and even a one-liner that kills from Andy Dick; there’s Leo Koenig and Mark Taylor Jackson, two personalities breaking into the big-time while their roommate and friend Ira struggles, played by Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman; and of course the deadpan mousey beauty of comic Daisy, (Aubrey Plaza), and the riotously absurd antics of Raaaaaaaandy, (Aziz Ansari). I’ll bet that watching the deleted scenes and all the unscripted jokes told on camera could in fact be funnier than the final result. Despite the plot tying everything together, the film is truly an ensemble piece of clashing personas that riff of each other ever step of the way. Not even Torsten Voges’ Dr. Lars can escape the comedic jabs at his Scandinavian accent and large physique.

The reason so much works, and would work whether the underlying tale of one comedian righting wrongs and another learning his way, is because of the second layer present. This is a send-up to the industry itself, for better or worse. There is the ridicule and hatred of commercial success with both George/Sandler’s parade of movies with goofy premises and horrid screen-writing and Schwartzman’s “Head of the Class” wannabe sitcom “Yo, Teach” and the money it rakes in even though it could be the worst show in the world. These roles aren’t just poking fun at the job, but at the actors themselves. Heck, one of the longest running gags comes at the expense of Rogen and his real life weight loss for The Green Hornet. What makes that joke even funnier, though, is that he does look weird as a skinny guy, especially when next to Hill, who appears to have put on all that his buddy lost.

So, my advice to you is that if you choose to see Funny People do it exactly for the title itself. The actors are hilarious and bring gold with every retort. Even the jokes that fall flat actually fall flat, that’s the beauty of a majority being set in comedy clubs. You hear the guffaws as well as the crickets; you see the mentor teach as well as leech; you see the karmic ways in which success happens so easily for the jerks but so hard for the good guys. Even Eric Bana does his best to keep the levity alive while Sandler attempts to steal his wife. Amping up his Aussie accent, keeping a huge smile on his face, and talking Eastern remedies make you love the guy despite what we hear about his infidelities. It may be a tale of reconnecting with your life to some, a cautionary tale about fame and money to those looking to break into Hollywood, but for me, it is a well-constructed, if not overlong, vehicle to keep me laughing, long and hard.

Funny People 8/10

Oh yeah, and you have to LOVE the t-shirts in this thing. Between the indie music tees worn by Hill, (great Beirut shirt that reminded me of limited concert posters like those at www.patentpendingindustries.com, and the other fun stuff, including an “Upright Citizens Brigade” tee on Rogen, I had a blast spotting the artwork throughout.

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photography:
[1] (L to R) LESLIE MANN, ADAM SANDLER, SETH ROGEN and ERIC BANA star in writer/director Judd Apatow’s third film behind the camera, Funny People, the story of a famous comedian who has a near-death experience. Credit: Tracy Bennett
[2] Jonah Hill as Leo, Seth Rogen as Ira Wright and Jason Schwartzman as Mark Taylor in Universal Pictures’ Funny People.

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