August 8, 2009 by Zack
It’s evident that the last 5 or so years of American comedy cinema has been dominated by Judd Apatow. Apatow, a mere footnote in the 80’s and 90’s, producing failed comedy shows and dramadies like “Freaks & Geeks”, has become extremely prominent in the world of film, whereas his television career just came to a grinding halt. For him, that’s fine–for us, the audience, it’s been a great ride. I’ve enjoyed his films thoroughly, from “The 40 Year Old Virgin” to “Knocked Up” and “Superbad”, and although I’ve griped from time to time about the running times, the characters in the films and the talented actors he’s used far more than made up for the overlongness of the films.
Now Apatow brings us somewhat of his attempt at a masterpiece. This one has a “serious” plot. While we’re used to Adam Sandler movies being goofy and childish, he’s starting to pry into the world of dramatic roles, and though his success hasn’t been as great as Bill Murray’s or Jim Carrey’s, he’s still grown as an actor. In “Funny People”, Sandler plays George Simmons; a version of Sandler himself, and just as successful. But this version of Sandler is the sad clown–he has no wife, or kids. He has no friends. He is all alone in his mansion, and he jokes at one point at a comedy club: “Guys always tell me ‘Oh my wife’s great. She’s a great cook.’ Really? Well I have a great cook, who is an actual cook. ‘Oh my wife, she’s my best friend.’ Yeah? My cook’s a pretty good friend, too.”
But Simmons did have a love of his life once. Laura, played by Leslie Mann, is the estranged former flame who is now married with her own kids (played by Apatow’s real-life children), and has no interest in rekindling even a friendship with Simmons. Simmons then finds out he has a blood disease that could be fatal. He is put on radical medication that is only in its testing stage, but it’s his only shot at being cured. When he finds this out, he goes to a comedy club and is extremely down, but no one knows why. Enter Ira Wright (played by Seth Rogen) who is a struggling up-and-coming comedian who gigs at the Improv for only 5 minutes and works at a deli for “a living”; he meanwhile rooms with two more successful people–Leo (Jonah Hill), also a comedian; and Mark (played by Jason Schwartzman) who is an actor in a hit sitcom on NBC called “Yo! Teach!”, a horrible send up of what we usually get on the tube on a nightly basis (and yes, it’s on purpose that they made it that bad). Ira performs and impresses George, and he hires him as a writer for his newer material.
The two form a friendship and George helps Ira’s career as he allows Ira to also open for him at gigs as well as write jokes. George also tells Ira about his blood condition, and Ira is the only one who knows about it.
While this is the most complicated plot Apatow has worked with, he seemed to handle all of the different storylines well for the first two acts of the film. But by the third act, the movie seems to try and pull itself into two or three different directions, and by the time it finds its focus in the conclusion, we’re a bit lost on what the movie was actually about.
On the one hand, it’s about a friendship, mentor/student relationship between George and Ira. On the other hand, it’s about a lost love situation that George tries to rekindle and gets caught up in, when he shouldn’t. Then, there’s also a love interest for Ira as well, and a plot involving the fact that Ira was supposed to tell Leo that both of them were going to write for George, and Leo gets mad at Ira for not telling him. It’s evident that Apatow takes on too much for himself to handle, and unfortunately, the movie proves he’s not the stellar screenwriter he may think he is, or others may think. I’ve heard Oscar buzz already about this movie. If this film is nominated for best screenplay, I’m going to give up my dreams of ever becoming a screenwriter, because all would be lost!
It’s frustrating that this film falls apart in the end. I really wanted to like it. In some ways I really did. There are scenes I’d love to watch over and over again. Some of the cameo scenes are fantastic. But as a film, which clocks in at about 136 minutes, it just doesn’t work overall. And that’s a real shame because Apatow has shown a command behind the camera, and as a writer. I think he lost a little touch of reality in this one, and instead of getting “Guernica”, we get a finger painting.
I think he should not try so hard to make a masterpiece, and just let the next story flow naturally. And…seriously, he needs to watch the running times. Comedies should not be over two hours long. It’s just not right.
I’m not giving this a passing grade, but I do think it’s worth a viewing, on DVD or on cable. But I wouldn’t go out to the theatre, unless you want to spend half your afternoon there, and come away somewhat disappointed and confused on why such a wonderful first hour of a film turned into a mess.