Writer-director Judd Apatow and his old roommate Adam Sandler team up nicely in the ambitious Funny People. Apatow's third film as director is his most adventurous, giving Sandler a chance to truly act, as opposed to the unabashed mugging he's done in recent films. Funny People offers up Sandler's best acting since Punch-Drunk Love, and shows that Apatow can be as emotionally powerful as he is funny.
Sandler plays George Simmons, a stand-up comedian turned film actor who has left the clubs behind for movies in which he plays characters like a baby with an adult head and a merman. He's achieved great fame, and he has a big house and lots of money—but he's alone. He's not really whining about it; that's just the way things worked out.
After a visit to the doctor, George finds out he doesn't have long to live. In a depressed state, he decides to try stand-up again, but he just bums everybody out. He spies a young comic named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) doing a set after him, and promptly offers him a job as his joke writer. Sure, Ira's hiring seems absolutely ridiculous in its quickness, but it's a movie, and we go with it, especially since the performances are so good.
George's condition eventually leads him to contact friends, past and present, and make amends. Looming largest in his past is Laura (Leslie Mann), "the one who got away." When Laura comes to see George, the scene generates genuine emotional fireworks. Apatow proves that he's capable of handling the heavy stuff, and the moment between Sandler and Mann is tear-worthy.
But is Funny People funny? Actually, it's very funny.
Remember that movie Punchline, in which Tom Hanks and Sally Field did real stand-up, and it felt forced, staged and shitty? Well, when the likes of Sandler and Rogen do material, they come off as guys who could go on tour right now. This is especially true of Rogen, who is very at home with a microphone in his hand. The same goes for Jonah Hill, who has a supporting role as one of Ira's roommates. I'd pay good money to see this trio do a night of stand-up.
The movie is lengthy—almost 2 1/2 hours—but it never feels long. When George and Ira journey to Laura's house, where things get a little out of hand, the tone of the film changes to a degree that it feels like another movie. Fortunately, it feels like another good movie. Apatow takes a lot of risks, and they pay off.
The movie, wisely, never tries to force us to feel sorry for George; meanwhile, Apatow, Sandler and Rogen show that they can handle the emotional bits without getting sappy. Sandler's character still tells jokes when he is sick. They are dark, morbid jokes, but they are jokes all the same.
Rogen has made comments about how he doesn't want to ever make the move from comedy to heavy drama. After seeing his work here, I have no doubt that he could handle purely "serious" acting roles. His Ira has many layers, some of them very funny, others movingly sensitive. His performance is actually one of the year's best so far.
Sandler gets his career back on track with this one; he even gets to make fun of himself and his career a bit. He's allowed to show his goofy side on TV screens on which his garbage movies are being shown, but he seems like a real guy during most of the movie. Mann, Apatow's wife, is outstanding as usual. Eric Bana and Jason Schwartzman do fine work in supporting roles.
It will be interesting to see how Apatow follows this up. Meanwhile, Sandler is in production on his next Dennis Dugan film—he's the guy who directed I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry—so quality will probably get put on hold for him again.