When world-famous comedian George Simmons (Sandler) is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he recruits wannabe stand-up Ira (Rogen) towrite material for him. He also tries to re-ignite the flame with ex Laura (Mann), despite her marriage to Clarke (Bana)
It’s no small comfort that the month the beloved John Hughes passes, his most natural successor truly hits his stride. Ferris’ father may no longer be with us — R. I. P., dude — but, on the evidence of Funny People, his spirit has found a more than suitable surrogate for some time to come. Judd Apatow has long-since established his credentials in the comedy marketplace ($1.4 billion ago, give or take), but here he dares to tread outside the boundaries some reviewers seem so insistent he play within. Attacked, apparently, for its ambition (sacrilege, clearly) by critics on release in the US, and suffering a subsequent second-week drop-off, Funny People is comfortably his best movie yet, not to mention one of the finest comedies to bowl along in years.
Abrasive, unapologetic, dark and brilliantly shot (by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski, no less), it simultaneously takes big risks and refuses shortcuts — and consequently does come in at a patience-stretching two-and-a-half hours. But in shooting for the moon, Apatow justifies his reputation as the figurehead of the exciting new wave of comedy filmmakers. And again he has one thing on his mind. But where The 40-Year-Old Virgin was about getting laid and Knocked Up having kids, his preoccupation this time is death. His circle-of-life trilogy coming to its beautiful conclusion.
It’s all wonderfully personal. From the pre-credits footage of a 20 year-old Adam Sandler making prank phone calls — shot by Apatow when the pair were flatmates — to some of Apatow’s most pointed observations on the dilemmas of adulthood — “It’s easy to be faithful, when no-one wants to fuck you” — it is consistently, painfully frank.
Working under the quasi-improvised style Apatow dubs his “half-assed Mike Leigh”, the cast — allowed to roam, but never too far — are sensational in a succession of knockout sequences that feel at once tightly constructed and delightfully freeform. Mann (aka Mrs. Apatow) and Schwartzman are as superb as always, she as George’s one-who-got-away and he a slimy sitcom star. Newcomer Aubrey Plaza is a deadpan joy, and Bana returns to his roots as a stand-up with relish.
But it’s Rogen and Sandler who really impress. With delicious irony, the slimmed-down Rogen is by far at his most rounded here, thoughtful, witty and sensitive, the spine of the story. Sandler, meanwhile, is a revelation. Simmons, an unlikable, shallow egomaniac who just happens to be as hilarious as he is hooked on hollow sex and ice lollies, is his best work by some distance. Subtle and more natural than Punch-Drunk Love, were there an Oscar for Best Performance For Most Of A Movie, we’d recommend a trip to Ladbrokes pronto.
Where both he and the movie lose traction and probably nominations is in a final half-hour that drifts alarmingly towards the trite. Until that point, Apatow’s channelling of James L. Brooks and Hal Ashby has created a story more European than American, about people over plot. Quite why he goes all Nora Ephron for a climax of front-lawn punch-ups and mad airport dashes remains a mystery.
As a rare, personal insight into the life of a stand-up, Apatow’s labour of love remains a triumph, a thoughtful tale of love, loyalty and second chances, peppered with cock-jokes. Where previous forays into the circuit, such as Lenny and Punchline, have suffered a hit-and-miss level of on-stage material, Funny People combines some truly inspired dialogue — “Don’t put me in a position where I have to fuck my way out of a corner!” — and genuinely hilarious routines, from Rogen especially. Particular kudos going to a skit in which Tom Cruise, David Beckham and Will Smith rub the tips of their penises together.
Meanwhile, his use of cameos, a device often overplayed to the point of irritation (hello, Ricky Gervais) is perfectly judged, pinnacling in a bar scene that sees a reflective Eminem abuse a startled Ray Romano: “Raymond, I thought everybody loved you.”
An absolute treat. In spite of its disappointing climax, this is Apatows smartest, rudest and yes funniest film yet.