Director Judd Apatow Stars Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Lesley Mann USA 2009 Language English 2hrs 26mins Colour
Apatow meets Sandler, sprawling comedy-drama results
Many years ago, I watched a film called Husbands. I was very excited, because it was the first film I had seen made by John Cassavetes, who, depending on how you classify things, can be considered the first of the great American independent directors. It starred Peter Falk! Gotta love Peter Falk! And Ben Gazzara! (Later on, I did one of my favourite interviews ever with Mr Gazzara). And Cassavetes himself, a powerful if always cold and creepy screen presence.
And god it was hard to watch – shapeless, never-ending, out of control. Cassavetes loved the improvisational work his actors had done, and didn’t want to ape the big studios by dumping most of this in the bin. My memory (I’d be interested to watch the film again) was that he was horribly wrong, and the film was a gruelling mess.
So what does John Cassavetes, heroically uncompromising maker of low-budget 1970s dramas, have to do with the monstrously successful Judd Apatow, responsible for a long stream of 21st-century hit comedies including The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up? In a way, quite a lot*. Both regularly work(ed) with a rep company of friends and family who were welcome to make a creative contribution to the movies. The downside of this potentially interesting process is sprawling movies. And at almost two and a half hours, Funny People – written, produced and directed by Apatow – is a very baggy film indeed.
The plot is simple. George Simmons, a star of Adam Sandleresque comedies played by Adam Sandler, learns he has advanced leukaemia. In the existential crisis that follows he decides to return to stand-up and hires young comedian Ira (Apatow regular Seth Rogen) as his writer and gopher. Belatedly, he attempts to reconnect with the people he estranged along the way, including his sister, his parents and the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann, aka Mrs Apatow).
But hang on! Let’s not forget Ira, because this is Ira’s story too. So we also plunge into his friendship/rivalry with his flatmates Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), the writer-star of a terrible sitcom called Yo, Teach. And his crush on Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), their neighbour and another aspiring stand-up. Got that?
It’s too little and too much. Not a lot actually happens. We, inevitably, get a large number of scenes of stand-up, mostly not very funny despite the high-profile stars. Less explicably, we get a scene in which Simmons – backed by musicians he’s played to come and jam with him – sings the whole of the mediocre John Lennon offcut Real Love.
It’s one of a dozen or so scenes in this film crying out to be consigned to DVD extras. Likewise most of the scenes in which Simmons hangs out with his peers – Andy Dick, Paul Reiser, Sarah Silverman etc as themselves… It’s been done before, it’s been done better. It’s passingly amusing to see Eminem insult Ray Romano, but doesn’t justify the tedious build-up.
But if George and his famous chums are bad, the Apatow daughters are still to come. Granted, they are perfectly competent actresses, but they get loads of unnecessary screen time. The film reaches its nadir when we are meant to realise that George hasn’t learnt any lessons from his brush with death when he gets bored and plays with his phone while being forced to watch a video of one of the little Apatows singing Memory from Cats. This is Judd Apatow openly picking a fight with any member of the audience who doesn’t find his precocious little brats heartbreaking. (Eric Bana, incidentally, often terrible in American movies, has a couple of decent moments during this stretch of the film).
So what’s Apatow told us over this epic span of time? That comedians are often miserable. That facing death doesn’t automatically make a person a saint. That showbiz friends fuck one each other over. That clinging on to the idea of the love of your life years after the relationship ended is not healthy. None of these are remotely new thoughts. None are presented here from a new angle, nor an entertaining one. The real lesson here is you have to have real discipline to work with your chums and kids, and Judd Apatow lacks that.
The best thing about Funny People is The Rza, who plays a guy who works at a deli with Ira. He’s in the film for about five minutes. That probably says all you need to know.
*Sometimes you spot one of these connections, and get it into your head that, say, someone is ripping off something it actually turns out they have never seen. And other times, you do a bit of reading afterwards and find out that, yes, Apatow was consciously trying to drink of the spirit of Cassavetes here.