“Do one thing and do it well.” That famous bit of advice was obviously not remembered by Judd Apatow when he decided to make Funny People, where the successful director and producer attempts to juggle so many plates at once that he ends up dropping them all in the end.
There’s a general consensus that says that many of the best comedians derive their humor and material from pain in their lives. Tragedy, illness, abuse – somehow, these have become the best friend to the jokester. It is no different with George Simmons, the Adam Sandler-like character played by, well, Adam Sandler. George, like every Spielberg protagonist since the beginning of time, has Daddy issues; namely, that his was (somewhat) abusive, and Simmons’ lifelong struggle has been to make Papa laugh, an endeavor at which he claims to have failed. This failure has provided him motivation to become a famous stand-up and movie star, featured in such (fictional) films as Re-Do, in which Simmons plays a character with an infant’s body and his adult head. Even the fictional movie-within-a-movie features parental issues. On top of all this, we learn that George is now suffering from a rare blood disease that just might kill him. Send in the clowns…
It is with this setup that Apatow attempts to analyze the comic’s mind, but that’s not enough for him, unfortunately. He sees this as an opportunity to give a behind-the-scenes look at the profession of being a stand-up, the home life of a Hollywood mega-star, and the chance for our star to reconcile with a flame of yesteryear, amongst other things. This leads to a bloated two-and-a-half-hour film that not only often feels like James L. Brooks at his most saccharine, but also covers some ground we’ve seen covered time and again, and much better I might add (say, the first few seasons of Entourage).
Of course, this isn’t to say that there aren’t high points along the way. Along with Simmons, the film concurrently documents the journey of Ira Wiener (Seth Rogen), a wannabe stand-up who lucks into the prime gig of Simmons’ joke-writer/personal assistant. Though there have been a fair share of films having to do with stand-ups (Punch Line and Comedian probably serving as the prime examples), neither have focused on what it means to be a struggling comedian in the way that Funny People does with Ira and his peers. Ira’s journey was reminiscent of Mickey Rourke’s in The Wrestler, a comparison not hurt by the fact that both men had day jobs working in the deli department of a grocery store. Although Randy the Ram’s struggle was multiplied by his having to overcome past fame and current drug addiction, both men are fighting in an ultra-competitive world to make a name for themselves, taking any gigs they can on nights and weekends, all for little or even no pay. Something tells me that a film about a longer-in-the-tooth stand-up just beginning to give up on his dream isn’t far off from reality; hell, if they could re-make The Wrestler with Jeff Bridges and country music and win Oscars with Crazy Heart, why can’t the same be done with the stand-up world?
It’s that longing for something a bit better that I’ll be left with by Funny People. It had many of the proper ingredients to be a success – a fit and trim Rogen at his least cloying, Sandler toning it down to play an adult, celebrity cameos (Eminem’s was particularly effective and hilarious), the peering behind the curtain – but tried too hard to be too many things and ended up getting booed off the stage.