Advance buzz had tagged Funny People as Judd Apatow’s “cancer comedy.” Actually, it’s leukemia that’s putting the squeeze on George Simmons, the jerk-off star of dumb family movies and raunchy stand-up. Adam Sandler, relaxed, focused, alert to nuance, plays George, and it’s his best performance ever (right up there with Punch-Drunk Love). Forget tear-jerking. Apatow writes with warmth and wit, but he’s no soft touch. He knows George can be a cruel bastard, impossible to live with, but the fucker is funny. Jokes have always been his weapons of choice.
The same goes for Apatow. This is only his third film as a director, following The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but his influence is so pervasive that he’s credited or blamed for every bromance on the market. The potently hilarious Funny People, shot by Schindler’s List Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski, no less, is Apatow’s most personal film. He roomed with Sandler when they first came to L.A. They both did stand-up, only Sandler was better at it.
Seth Rogen basically has the Apatow role as Ira — “Schmyra,” to George — the struggling writer whom the big star brings in to create material for his act. He’s amazed at the babes who lay down for his boss. “I’m a story they tell their friends,” shrugs George, a pussy hound with no illusions. At the start, Ira is the only one George tells about his disease. They bond, but only till Ira gets too close. Then he’s reminded, “You’re not my friend, you work for me.” Apatow has taken pains to say that this is not a biopic. George is a nightmare version of what he and Sandler might have become without the healing balance of wives and children.
That part of the equation is represented by Leslie Mann (Mrs. Apatow) as Laura, the girl George lost by cheating on her. Now mired in a bad marriage to a skirt-chasing Aussie (Eric Bana demonstrating real comic flair), Laura takes solace in their two children, played by the director’s two adorable daughters with Mann, Iris and Maude Apatow. Learning of George’s illness and possible remission, Laura is pulled apart emotionally. Mann, one of the strongest arguments for nepotism in the business, is simply sensational in the role, finding the right blend of humor and heartbreak in a woman who is understandably reluctant to give her trust to a man.
Laura’s divided loyalties are symptomatic of the film. Apatow has many stories to tell, too many. Ira’s life in the house he shares with two competitive friends — a riotous Jonah Hill, as a fellow writer, and a terrific Jason Schwartzman (he also did the music) as an actor who stars in the deliciously demented sitcom Yo, Teach — could be its own movie, and a good one.
But the soul of Funny People is in the stand-up. Rogen, wonderful throughout, is a hoot delivering a bit about Tom Cruise, David Beckham and Will Smith mushing the tips of their dicks together just because they’re bored rich guys. And it’s a treat watching Sandler mix it up with other comics, including Paul Reiser, Sarah Silverman and Ray Romano. There are lots of guest shots, including a killer one from Eminem, who tells George he’d be better off dead than making more stupid movies. Food for thought. But no worries about this perceptive, deeply entertaining boundary-pusher. It’s the work of a major talent. Apatow scores by crafting the film equivalent of a stand-up routine that encompasses the joy, pain, anger, loneliness and aching doubt that go into making an audience laugh. For his funny people, that really is a matter of life and death.