What if Terms of Endearment had had more dick jokes? The curious need only see Judd Apatow's Funny People, in which a prickly Hollywood-A-list comedian must confront his loneliness when he's diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease.
Funny People | Written and Directed by Judd Apatow | with Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Reiser, Sarah Silverman, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Aziz Ansari, and RZA | Universal | 146 minutes
Interview: Judd Apatow. By Lance Gould.
Fortysomething funnyman George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is living alone in a fart-financed Xanadu, having reaped the rewards of a familiar brand of sophomoric comedy. But, in what is by now a tired trope, the person who makes other people laugh is — that's right! — crying on the inside. George's lack of a social safety net is exacerbated when his doctor informs him he's suffering from a deadly blood disorder.
With no one else to turn to, George looks to group therapy, sharing the news with roomfuls of strangers . . . in bitter gigs at Los Angeles comedy clubs. At one of these sardonic performances, he meets comedy newbie Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who becomes not only his paid personal assistant but also his de facto best friend.
George confides all to Ira: about his affliction, about how he self-medicates with meaningless sexual encounters, and about the one person he regrets losing when he got famous, Laura (Leslie Mann), an actress-turned-mom who left him years ago after he cheated on her. Can Ira help George rediscover his youthful exuberance and, more important, reconnect him with Laura? Can death open George's eyes — and his heart?
Apatow, the reigning King of Comedy, uses these pedestrian questions as a framework to create a brooding look at the often brutal world of stand-up. As a former comic who, like Ira, wrote jokes for other comics, he taps into comedy's kinetic energy — and its viciousness. This is true both in the film's on-stage comic performances and in the insecurity that fuels comedians in their off-stage lives: the one-upmanship, the schadenfreude, the competitiveness, the desperation.
Apatow gets winning performances from his cast, with standouts including Rogen, Jason Schwartzmann as his unctuous roommate and star of the soulless-dreck TV show Yo, Teach!, and the imposing Eric Bana, a revelation as Laura's meat-headed Australian husband. Sandler is fine playing a darker version of himself, though he's overmatched in the film's most dramatic moments.
There are other flaws, chief among them self-indulgence, as the two-and-a-half-hour running time attests. FunnyPeople would have been no less funny had it dropped a few scenes, particularly those of Apatow's actual family. (Mann is his real-life wife, and their daughters Maude and Iris play her kids here in what are near retreads of scenes from Knocked Up.)
But the film also triumphs as an insider's homage to an art form, playing at times like a survey of comedy history. Set walls feature photos of legendary comedians, from W.C. Fields to Redd Foxx to Chris Rock. T-shirts pay tribute to the Upright Citizens Brigade troupe and Mad magazine. Movie stills and posters ranging from Dr. Strangelove to Fast Times at Ridgemont High compete for attention with cameos by stand-ups, from the well-known (Paul Reiser, Sarah Silverman) to the up-and-coming (Aziz Ansari) to the obscure (Orny Adams).
To that comedy timeline now add "Sweet Baby" James Taylor, who, in an amusing cameo, gets into the savage spirit, asking Ira, "Ever get tired of talking about your dick?"