Having helped reclaim the teen comedy from the American Pie gross-out gang, 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up director Judd Apatow attempts to move into a smarter, more mature, but no less funny terrain with the over-reaching, yet still perfectly satisfactory Funny People.
Apatow teams up with Seth Rogan once again, who plays Ira Wright, a no-mark comic who’s having to watch pals Mark and Leo (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman) make a better fist of making it on the comedy circuit. Ira’s miserable fortune switches when he warms up for George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a fading comedian who’s using stand-up as a way of resurrecting his own flailing career and dealing with a terminal illness.
Seeing a kernel of talent in Ira, Simmons asks him to write some material for him, and ultimately takes him on as a kind of personal assistant. His condition helping him realise that he’d been a long-term dick to his ex-girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann). George tries to make amends, leading to the pair rediscovering their feelings for each other, despite her being married with kids. All the while, George helps Ira find his feet as a comedian, as Ira in return helps George through his darkest hour - until a bit of good news for George changes everything.
Funny People is unsurprisingly rammed with some quality one-liners and some solid comedy performances. Rogan, Hill and Schwartzman work well together, and shoot the shit with convincing ease. It’s also a treat to watch Rogan and Hill onstage, and the stand-up footage is shot with a suave, loose intimacy that gives a great freshness to their performance - and offers a good measure of how funny the guys genuinely are.
But Funny People is ultimately far too uneven, as the perfect balance between comedy and drama that Apatow achieved with Knocked Up is out of kilter here. It appears that the director is keen to heighten both the comedy and the drama, but all that happens is the distance between the two becomes more pronounced, with the softness of the predecessor making way for mawkishness. Dirty gags jostle with daytime soapiness, as George jumps through morality hoops of little great invention.
The imbalance is never better illustrated than in the scene where George and Ira rip the piss out the doctor as he outlines the seriousness of George’s condition - while humour is obviously being used as a defence mechanism, it highlights a simplified and unnatural balancing of realism and artifice.
It’s likely that your enjoyment will hinge on your own attitude to Sandler. Like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, there are shades of Sandler’s own career in this - playing a comedian whose best days are behind him and who doesn’t actually seem that funny in his heyday, it requires serious dramatic acting chops to stir up major sympathy.
Sandler makes a brave attempt, but ultimately his turn helps leave the film mired in a middle ground of indifference. That said, Sandler’s not given much of a chance to shine, given that it’s hard to feel too sorry for a main character whose arc goes from being a dick to less of a dick to still a dick.
There are plenty of laughs to be had in Funny People, but it’s when it tries to move into dramatic territory that it comes unstuck. Keen to be seen as a youthful take on Woody Allen’s textured peak-period middle-class humour, it overstretches and becomes a flawed piece that takes too long to get over a simple message - it’s no fun being fun.
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan
Directed by: Judd Apatow
Extras: Deleted, extended and alternative scenes, gag reel, featurettes