Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Funny People: Actually Funny

Grade: B+

Funny People had one of those trailers that just kind of made you go "huh?" Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? How is this the guy who did Knocked Up? I for one wasn't any more relieved to see a lot of mixed early word, focusing on the 2 and a half hour running time and uneven tone. But I'm here to tell you: don't believe what you hear.

That strange first trailer gives away most of the movie, so I won't worry about giving away too much plot. Funny People is the story of two comedians - one successful but dying and lonely (Adam Sandler's George Simmons) and one unsuccessful and awkward with women but, well, not dying (Seth Rogen's Ira Wright). After the diagnosis, George decides to go back to his stand-up roots, hiring Ira to write jokes and be his assistant.

Sure, the illness thing is more serious than either of Judd Apatow's other movies, but in this section of the movie there's still plenty of typical Apatow humor to go around. Say what you will about all the penis jokes or the overabundance of movies marked with his name these days, but he knows how to write characters you like watching and hanging out with. The best moments here are still in those plot-free moments when the actors get to just riff off each other.

He's also got a knack for getting lots of legitimately funny people together. As Ira's roommates, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman give two of the most enjoyable performances, and I didn't like either of them much before this movie. Hill's youtube-video-within-the-movie may be one of the funniest things he's done. I've said it before and will say it again: Aziz Ansari is always hilarious. But one of my faves this time around was Aubrey Plaza as Ira's comedian crush, who made the typical awkward flirting scenes all much much funnier. Do I actually now have a reason to watch Parks and Recreation? Still probably not gonna happen.

As many scene stealers as there are though, the two leads do command the movie. Showing off (and frequently mentioning) his newly slimmer figure, Seth Rogen again goes beyond his typical 40 Year Old Virgin/Knocked Up role (and to much better results than in Observe & Report). But most surprising is Adam Sandler, who seriously gives one of his best performances. In many ways, the movie can best be seen as a chronicle of the life of a celebrity, and you can easily see George Simmons being who Adam Sandler would have become had his life taken some different turns. He's probably the least "funny" part of the movie, but he makes the serious parts work.

Now, as you may remember from the trailer, all of that ends when George is told he beat the cancer, and he drives up to Northern California with Ira to win back his ex-girlfriend (Leslie Mann). This lengthy final section feels like an entirely different movie, and is definitely the most problematic section. Largely my biggest problem with it is that Ira - who had up to then been basically the protagonist - is left with nothing to do but act really nervous. But does this section ruin the movie as some critics have suggested? No.

The laughs-per-minute ratio may not quite be as high here, but there's still plenty of funny to go around. Eric Bana, as the husband, gives an impressive comic performance you wouldn't have guessed he had in him after movies like Munich and Troy. And Judd Apatow's family is always fun to watch. I actually found the part perfectly enjoyable in its own right, just less so in conjunction with the movie that preceded it.

If you come in expecting The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, you're going to be disappointed. After two such well-received comedies, the expectations for Funny People were way too high. But if you can take it for what it is, in all of its messy, oddly toned glory, you may find yourself having a good time. If nothing else, I'll say this - compared to Transformers 2 and Public Enemies, it's the fastest-moving 2 and a half hour long movie this summer.

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