Sometimes failure is its own form of success. After all, take the case of writer-director Judd Apatow, who stuck out on the small screen with two critically beloved and cultishly embraced but ratings-challenged shows, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, before finding mainstream redemption on the big screen in 2005 with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and two years later with Knocked Up.
A foray into more emotionally rooted territory, Apatow’s new film, Funny People, is partially about the trappings of success, and if not failure outright then certainly the looming specter of it as a distinct possibility, in the form of friends and roommates passing you by and establishing professional beachheads. Of course, because it’s still an Apatow film, there are plenty of dick jokes too.
The story centers around George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a hugely successful comedic actor who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Alone and embittered, he starts venturing out to a Los Angeles comedy club, where he indulges in some self-destructive, Andy Kaufman-style stand-up. It’s here that George comes across Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling, would-be comedian who lives with his pals Leo (Jonah Hill), a fellow stand-up, and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), an actor on a successful but positively wretched kids’ sitcom. George hires Ira to help write some material for him, then stay on as his personal assistant; he soon confides the secret of his illness to Ira, and comes to rely on him both for emotional support and as a sounding board for his ideas on re-entering the world, personally and professionally, in a way that might bring him more happiness.
At around the movie’s one-hour mark, George starts trying to substantively reconnect with ex-girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann), who’s now married to Australian businessman Clarke (Eric Bana), with whom she shares two daughters. News that the experimental drug treatment George has been undergoing has seemingly staved off his illness would seem to clear the way for a possible romantic rekindling with Laura, who still has deep feelings for George, but… well, things are complicated.
Whether scoring zeitgeist points off of modern technology (anything with kittens is a surefire YouTube sensation, Leo points out) or folding in cracks about Rogen’s real-life weight loss, Funny People succeeds as a comedy, just in terms of laugh count, even in the long-form first act that comprises the spine of George’s illness tale. This is because the film is honest about George’s self-loathing, and the insecurity and anger that informs a lot of the best comedic acting out, be it on stage or in real life. It feels real, just in terms of the background and setting, and so you settle into a nice groove with it.
Things stall out in its last couple reels, though, partially owing to a subplot that sees Ira finally making a love connection with fellow comedian Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), as well as some cameos (Eminem, Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano) that drag on a bit too long. The former narrative strand is almost entirely extraneous (Ira’s self-actualization isn’t something we care much about), while the latter tidbits are more typical products of Apatowian largesse.
Funny People‘s chief problem, though, is that Apatow fails to convincingly solve — or even entertainingly chew up and spit out — his main character’s most pressing dilemma. Decamping for nearly 40 minutes at Clarke and Laura’s house, the movie grinds to a halt. We’re meant to see George struggle with coming to terms with the fact that his recaptured fantasy life with Laura may not be possible after all, and Ira struggle with figuring out how to tactfully express this to George, and we do in the broadest sense see these things, but Apatow’s writing here — both in the overarching construction of the scenes, and the specifics — too often feels sludgy and uncertain, perhaps a byproduct of letting Clarke drive so much of the action. George (thankfully) retains his spitfire irascibility, but in these passages and its more elegiac wind-down, the film lacks the pathos of something like Sideways, which managed to locate in the sadsack both the painfully familiar and the quietly noble.
Another thing that Funny People is missing, honestly, is an actor. Rogen is, well, a funny guy, and an absolute great fit for a lot of material, but he seems to hold back in some of the movie’s more baldly cathartic moments, and not out of a dewey-eyed deference to George that would make sense for his character. A fresh face may have benefited the role, as much as Apatow would loathe that. Sandler, on the other hand, has done dispirited and/or emotionally isolated before, in everything from The Wedding Singer (yes, seriously) and Punch-Drunk Love to Spanglish and the superb Reign Over Me, and, as strange as it may sound to some, he has just the right tears-of-a-clown range to pull off George’s swallowed contempt for the world that’s made him a star. I can’t think of another actor of his generation who could so readily and believably encapsulate the character’s highs and lows.
Finally, a note about all the dick, ball and masturbation jokes, which come to a head (no pun intended) with a stand-up rant from Ira in which he hypothesizes about Tom Cruise, David Beckham and Will Smith touching the heads of their cocks, just out of sheer masters-of-the-universe boredom, for novelty’s sake. The volume of this true-blue material is bound to be discussed, and pooh-poohed, by some reviewers, but it actually mostly makes sense; it’s just that the calculus overall is wrong, in my opinion. Some more clearly delineated lines between the senses of humor of Ira, George and even Leo (briefly glimpsed) would have been good, and made for some potentially rich contrast of uncomfortability. In Apatow’s world, though, everyone loves a dick joke. (Columbia, R, 146 minutes)