The part of Funny People that a lot of people have problems with is the part I liked the most — the final third (or, really, the final quarter). George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a world-famous comedian who’s been having serious health issues, goes to Marin County to visit his one-time girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann), now married with kids. For George, she’s the one who got away; he beats himself up endlessly for not having been worthy of her (he cheated on her). Writer-director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) settles in: the Marin County section takes far longer than we expect it to, and the longer it goes on, the more we suspect that George still isn’t worthy of her. He may have aged, he may have battled disease, but he hasn’t actually changed much.
In most movies about illness, the lead character matures and learns something about himself amid a drizzle of inspirational schmaltz. Apatow doesn’t play that game. George isn’t a bastard on the outside and a teddy bear on the inside — he’s pretty much a bastard through and through. He takes a wannabe stand-up comic, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), under his wing, first as a joke writer and then as an all-purpose caretaker (he makes Ira sit at his bedside until he falls asleep). Yet George treats Ira cavalierly, inconsistently. One minute Ira is a buddy; the next he’s just an employee. Ira, who gets on stage and dies until he falls back on dick jokes, is just one of many hopefuls yearning to make it in L.A. He’s basically in the same boat as his roomies, fellow (and funnier) aspiring stand-up Leo (Jonah Hill) and actor Mark (Jason Schwartzman), who actually has made it — he’s starring in a lame sitcom called Yo, Teach! Yet even Mark’s fame may be fleeting — when was the last time you saw Mark Curry, star of the similar Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper?
I’ve run hot and cold on Apatow: I enjoyed his directorial debut The 40-Year-Old Virgin and had problems with Knocked Up. But Funny People is easily his most ambitious and fully felt effort. Apatow not only worships comedians but knows them inside out, yet the film isn’t a make-’em-laugh-while-you’re-crying-inside melodrama like Punchline; it’s closer to The King of Comedy or the 1949 Milton Berle vehicle Always Leave Them Laughing. In those films, the comedians were hard and cold, which a comedian has to be on some level if he or she is to succeed. (We suspect that cuddly, sensitive Ira is doomed to work at Otto’s Deli.) The conversations have the easy flow of improv yet usually lead in angry directions. Funny People could have used the tagline for Clerks with a modification: “Just because they make you laugh doesn’t mean they like you.”
The movie made me laugh a few times — the scene between a certain rapper and a certain sitcom star will become legendary — but Funny People is generally more of a drama with comedic elements. At times it mines the ironic comedy of a bunch of wannabes who want what a big star has, while the star himself would trade it all for the vulgar camaraderie they have (to Apatow’s credit, he never has George come out and say this). Towards the end, though, the film gets messier and deeper. George reconnects with Laura, whose amiable husband (Eric Bana) is never around. The two former lovers re-establish their old rhythms and attraction. A reunion is what they think they want. But George hasn’t changed; Laura has. What the movie ends up saying is that some funny people will always be alone; their artistic strengths and their personal flaws are two sides of the same coin. It’s about as complex as an American mainstream movie is likely to get these days, and the fact that Judd Apatow delivered it, with a bitter and revealing performance by Adam Sandler that far outpaces everything else he’s done, is certainly a surprise.