I'll make no bones about it: I'm a huge Judd Apatow fan. I count The 40 Year-Old Virgin as one of the most underrated comedies of the past decade (there's just something about this scene
that slays me every time) and consider Knocked Up
to be a near faultless comedy - one that wears its heart on its big dumb soppy sleeve.
It's an understatement, then, that I was expecting big things from Funny People. The Apatow clan are back in force again (Judd behind the camera, wife Leslie the love interest, kids Maude and Iris her screen children); Rogen, minus the weight he lost for The Green Hornet, is his young muse; Adam Sandler, Judd's old friend, plays his mentor. The setting - the world of stand-up comedy - is one Apatow knows only too well.
So why does Funny People often feel like a joke without a punchline? Answer: because it's not strictly meant to be funny. 40 Year-Old Virgin, for all its crowd-pleasing crudity, was intensely personal and based partly on Apatow's own sexual naivety. Knocked Up, though it shared the same buddy-buddy comedy as its predecessor, tapped into his fear of fatherhood. Funny People focuses on the director's fear of death - hardly a rich vein of chuckles.
Apatow's third feature tells the story of the life, death and rebirth of comedian and actor George Simmons (Sandler). Like Sandler himself, Simmons graduated from stand-up into terrible family comedies with titles like Mer-Man. When he finds out he's dying of a terminal disease, Simmons retreats to the therapy of live comedy, catching the routine of aspiring but rough-edged stand-up Ira (Rogen). After hiring him as his assistant, Simmons realises he still loves old flame Laura (Mann) and attempts to win her back.
Though it's set in the world of stand-up comedians, comedy here is clinically deconstructed: Apatow is pulling back the curtain and showing us the tears of the clowns. Though Apatow is not necessarily aiming to depress, Funny People represents his most muted movie to date. Belly laughs are few and far between; the important beats here are those of drama. At times, you're literally watching a comedian die on stage. It might not be funny per se, but it's real car crash viewing.
Sandler is in 'actor' mode as sadcase Simmons, easily as good as he was in Punch Drunk Love. Yes, he's practically playing himself, but it's a brave role. At one point, during a conversation with Eminem of all people, George is told, "I don't know how you can go back to making those shitty baby movies again." The same could be said to Sandler, whose endless string of bozo comedies and family follies mask a subtle talent that is far too rarely glimpsed. It'll hurt to see him go back to the likes of Bedtime Stories.
Rogen too is excellent, drawing on his own relative inexperience and awkwardness as George's awe-struck gopher. He's played the lovable good guy before, but never this well: his stumbling gait, nervous energy and puppy-dog affection are all pitched perfectly. Ira provides the movie's big laughs, too; whether attempting a clumsy come-on to a Simmons groupie in a swimming pool, or riffing on a theory about how Tom Cruise, David Beckham and Will Smith like to smush the heads of their penises together.
In line with Apatow's typical theme of male bonding, George and Ira's tentative relationship forms the crux of the movie's first half, but becomes something of a by-product when George pursues the 'one that got away' ("guys have that and serial killers have that") around the mid-point. Mann is superb as ex-love Laura, now married to Eric Bana's travelling salesman, but Funny People's levity dissipates as its characters' personal lives get more complicated.
What's more, there are unforgivable character short-cuts that act as a thorn in the movie's side. Ira's first stand-up routine is pretty awful, yet veteran Simmons hires him to write his own jokes. Mann's love interest changes allegiance depending on which man is cooing over her (just like a real woman, then). The wonderful Eric Bana - playing the most Australian man on the planet - suddenly switches from punch-drunk psycho to sensitive soul in the blink of an eye.
Crucially, the balance in the relationship between George and Ira feels out of whack. Simmons, not necessarily painted as sympathetic, treats Ira like shit, and Ira being the shambling mess he is, just accepts it - you only know you're supposed to care when the melancholic acoustic guitar starts playing. It's to Sandler's credit that Simmons remains an ornery, unlikeable soul, but it's to the movie's detriment that he abuses Rogen's protege, the movie's heart whether Apatow meant it or not.
It seems churlish to mark down a drama for not being particularly funny - just like it'd be unfair to complain that a comedy isn't serious enough - but you get the feeling that Apatow is still playing to two different audiences. On one hand, there are the critics, who rightly recognise a good filmmaker when they see one. And on the other, there is Apatow's built-in audience, who've come to expect dick jokes and put-downs - the addition of Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman as Ira's roommates really adds nothing to the plot except for the odd crude gag. This time, the blokey back-and-forth seems forced.
The mere fact that there's so much comic talent on board makes Funny People seem like a missed opportunity. As a dramatic story, it's well written and well acted, obviously drawn from real experience and crafted with genuine emotion at its core. But as a comedy? It's lacking in levity and brevity, which will alienate a lot of Apatow's core fans. It's also missing an ending; with 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People charting Apatow's autobiographical obsessions with sex, love and eventually death, you do wonder if he's finally used up all of his 'A' material.