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Sunday, 27 September 2009

Funny People

In the past Judd Apatow has been really, really good at finding ways to find the comedy in real people. Much of it's thanks to his much-vaunted commitment to improvisation - anyone who's watched the extras to The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up will know that he lets his actors run on and on looking for the funny. But it also comes from telling stories that have a nugget of truth buried deep in the wacky set-ups and endless dick jokes. The 40 Year-Old Virgin was at it's heart the story of a guy becoming someone who could have a relationship, Knocked Up was about how tricky is it to become a father, and now with Funny People we get to see Apatow talking about what it takes to settle down into a proper adult life.

But being an Apatow film, it doesn't start off as a lecture on adult responsibilities: it starts off with would-be stand up comic Ira (Seth Rogen) trying to get his career going. While his flatmates seem to be climbing the career ladder just fine - Mark (Jason Schwartzman) is the star of a crappy sitcom called Yo, Teach! while Lee (Jonah Hill) seems to be free of self-doubt, perhaps because everyone loves a funny fat man - the slimmed down Ira is racked with doubt. Meanwhile, George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a massive comedy star thanks to what seems to be a stream of fairly lame gimmick movies (he's a merman; he's a baby again) and yet lives alone in his huge mansion, perhaps because he doesn't exactly seem all that likeable. Then he gets a rare, fatal blood disease and through a chain of circumstances ends up hiring Ira as a joke writer because hey, he's not feeling all that funny at the moment.

What develops between them is the usual Apatow male bond, but Sandler - who's in amazing form here in a largely serious role - and Rogen bring a heavy core to their banter and gags that gives the film a heft Apatow's previous films didn't have. But just when you think you've got this film pegged as a serious tale made tolerable through humour, there's a twist: Simmons gets better. With a new lease on life, he decides to rectify the mistakes of the past. Namely letting true love Laura (Leslie Mann) get away. She's now married (to Eric Bana, who is hilarious here) but a new life is tempting, and suddenly we've gone from a film about struggling comics to a family drama.

The shift works even though most of the comedy falls away for a while, but it gives the film an odd rambling feel, like it would have worked better as a TV mini-series. But Apatow knows what he's doing, and he knows what he wants to say; if you're willing to go with it, you'll find there's a lot to like about Funny People.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #461)

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