Funny People

Funny People


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

What can you give the man who has everything? Cancer, if you want a compelling film script. But this film has more up its sleeve than the usual rich man's mortality tragedy, and it takes on some brave challenges in pushing beyond the limits of the familiar narrative. It's just a shame it lacks the wit and the charisma to pull it off.

Adam Sandler is George Simmons, a successful star of the stand-up comedy circuit, TV shows and awful kids' films, who takes a responsible, open-hearted approach to celebrity, making an effort to be polite to the press and pose for pictures with fans. It's just behind the scenes that he's a dick, and there are certainly moments in the film when dying of cancer seems too good for him. Still, he doesn't seem fully aware of his personality deficiencies. Will a brush with acute myeloid leukaemia change the way he looks at life? How about his encounter with struggling new comedian Ira (Seth Rogen), who undertakes to become his assistant and tentatively offers to be his friend?

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Funny People is very much aware of the cliches it's playing with. Ira's little speech about how working in a deli isn't good enough for him is nicely counterpointed by a speech from an ex-con who's grateful to have any job that offers health insurance. His selfish attitude to women (most of the leading characters are hopelessly misogynist, living in a world where most of the women they meet are servants or groupies) is effectively countered by a strong female comedian (Aubrey Plaza) who defends her right to have sex with anybody she happens to find appealing, should the opportunity present itself. And the conventional arc of Simmons' story - something which serves as a comfort by way of its familiarity and advocation of responsibility - is sent all askew when his doctor offers tentative good news. The film then lurches out of Hollywood fantasy and into messy realism, and a new strand of narrative emerges as Simmons tries to win back the heart of the only women he ever truly loved - who just happens to be happily married with children.

All of this could have made for a fascinating film, and parts of it do. The interaction between Ira and his flatmates is sharply written and has a lot of charm. It's a shame we couldn't have seen more of these minor characters. There are lots of jokes about US TV celebrities (a cameo-based drinking game for this film could be dangerous), though this will bypass many UK viewers.

The real problem is Sandler. Having shown so much promise as a serious actor in Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, he resoundingly fails to live up to it here. He can play unpleasant, and that works, but he can't give Simmons the depth necessary to make us care, and the film indulges him far too much. We can't sympathise with Simmons as a human being when filtered through the haze of Sandler's celebrity, whereby we're still supposed to laugh at all his jokes and think he looks sexy. There's good supporting work from Rogen and from Eric Bana as the jilted husband, but it just bounces off Sandler, who is not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary for the role.

In addition to this, the film lacks strong enough dialogue to do justice to the boldness of its script. There's some very effective observational humour and an astute look at the way the process of creating and selling comedy works, but whilst it is funny that all these guys have to talk about is their genitals, it gets rather dull to listen to them do it over and over again. Commentary on internet humour is nicely balanced - kittens get what they deserve but the genuine usefulness of online contact is not overlooked - and yet the strength of Apatow's arguments is undermined by the fact that he doesn't seem to have many good jokes of his own. It seems reasonable to expect some comedy in a film like this, to balance the drama and occasionally cloying sentiment, but it doesn't deliver. Apatow is no Woody Allen. He has big ideas, but he's going to need to work much harder if he wants them to make an impression.

Reviewed on: 27 Aug 2009
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A popular comedian has to re-evaluate his life when he discovers he has cancer, but things don't go the way he expects.
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Director: Judd Apatow

Writer: Judd Apatow

Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Aubrey Plaza

Year: 2009

Runtime: 146 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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