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Funny People review

Apatow's terminal illness comedy gets Rachel Winterbottom laughing in the face of adversity

Written by . Published on September 2nd 2009.

Funny People review

Writer/director/producer Judd Apatow generally knows what’s funny. A 40-year-old virgin? Obviously. Accidental pregnancy? Hilarious! And now terminal illness – is it finally time to laugh about it?

Funny People does have a point, it’s just that it’s a depressing one. In a nutshell: life doesn’t miraculously become liveable just because you’re not going to die. It’s a bit like a fat person losing weight and realising that they’re ugly after all.

Actor and professional funny man George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is in his comedic prime but his health is failing. When he’s told he has a rare strain of leukaemia with only an eight per cent survival rate, Simmons begins to slowly break out of his self-imposed social exile with the help of a new assistant.

Alone in his opulent mansion with only his staff for company, Simmons realises that he has everything and nothing. Nostalgia for his own life takes him back to his old comedy circuit, where he finds shy, budding comedian Ira Wright (a toned up, toned down Seth Rogen).

Seemingly drawn to Ira’s youthful inexperience, Simmons hires him as his assistant and they embark on a relationship perilously close to what promoters would dub a bro-mance. It soon becomes apparent, however, that life with a famous comedian isn’t all shits and giggles. Ira is troubled when the increasingly healthy Simmons becomes obsessed with perusing old flame Laura (Leslie Mann), despite her being married with children.

Adam Sandler is brilliant as the understated Simmons. His body looks threadbare and lived in and his voice sounds so abused that you can picture each and every one of those smoky, dank, grimy little clubs he’s spent years forging a career in. Sandler’s subdued performance has you second guessing Simmons’ motives and desires most of the way through and your sympathy is with the complicated character right up until the final act. But we’ll get to that.

Seth Rogen plays the stand-up newbie Ira. The exact opposite of Simmons, Ira is probably like the old (43-year-old) sage was when he first started out; excited by everything and naive to the so-called perks of fame. Despite Rogen being better known for his crass roles in comedy, he actually plays sweet very well. It must be his bear-like quality.

At first the relationship between Simmons and Ira is genuinely touching. Ira acts as Simmons’ social stabiliser, gently leading him back into the land of the living in scenes where the dick jokes don’t actually detract from the poignancy of the moment. A montage of hospital visits intercut with the pair’s stand-up tour clearly indicates that while this film is about funny people, it’s also about what happens when the curtain falls. It’s these low key, tender and genuinely funny scenes that truly make the movie.

Apatow certainly likes to keep it in the filmic family with familiar face Jonah Hill (from the Apatow-produced Superbad) playing one of Ira's more successful flatmates. In this comedy-drama, Ira's friends are on hand to provide the more clownish humour and, being comedians, they’re an excuse for Apatow to pen in plenty of quick fire one liner one-upmanship. Something he conveniently excels in.

It’s when Simmons gets a potentially clean bill of health that the film takes a turn for the worse. It’s at this point that Funny People stops being about a life affirming battle with illness and more about a man attempting to break up a marriage. As a result, Sandler’s character seems increasingly abhorrent while Rogen’s Ira tags along like a spare part in the background.

The film makes a mistake in coming away from the ‘bro-mance’ aspect of the narrative and turning its attention instead on Simmons' relationship with Laura. It’s as if Apatow wanted to find a way to squeeze as much screen time out of his leading lady as possible. While Mann is brilliant at the naturalistic comedy Apatow elicits from his actors, this isn’t a good enough reason to build a bloated conclusion around her.

The film spends the remainder of its 146 minute running time fumbling around for a conclusion in the most lengthy way possible. It ends up being like one of those jokes only the elderly can tell – baffling, long and pointless. The only saving grace comes surprisingly in the form of Eric Bana as Laura’s cuckolded husband, turning his Aussie-ness up to full and coming out with some of the best lines in the film.

Funny People does have a point, it’s just that it’s a depressing one. In a nutshell: life doesn’t miraculously become liveable just because you’re not going to die. It’s a bit like a fat person losing weight and realising that they’re ugly after all. For a film about stand-up comedians, it’s surprisingly downbeat.

Despite most jokes being firmly rooted in the pants region, this is at times a very funny film. It’s a shame that it looses focus halfway through because the first half is an affecting, comic commentary on the human mechanism of coping through humour. It’s just unfortunate that the second half leaves you feeling more depressed than if Simmons had found out it was terminal after all.


Funny People (15) is on general release now.

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