Judd Apatow obviously wants to be taken seriously without abandoning the auteurist traits that got him to this current level of success. What else can explain Apatow’s befuddling new film Funny People? Apatow’s latest is a mosaic of Hollywood inner-circles, contrasting vantage points of struggling comedians and superstar sellouts, allowing just enough overlap between them to construct a traditional redemption tale. Apatow filters both light and dark tones into the proceedings, shooting for the moon but achieving a self-important mix of inadequacy and regret.
The film contains all the trademark Apatow vulgarity, the random coupling of diverse characters, and the deep seeded morality hidden beneath loads of comedic posturing, except without much of the charm of his previous features. Instead, Apatow attempts to inject a seriousness into the proceedings by trying to rekindle Adam Sandler’s dramatic chops, pitting his character George Simmons against the prospect of dying a slow death after living a luxurious, hollow life as a Hollywood icon. And the problem starts at the top, with Sandler’s inability to transcend the material and convince us his character has a soul under the sudden bursts of anger and egomania. Seth Rogen admirably hangs on to Sandler’s shirttails as Ira, a young, slightly dim comedian who turns into Simmons’ good luck punching bag, giving a run down character a complexity the writing doesn’t afford.
Funny People spends copious amounts of time with characters sitting around, shooting and talking shit, seamlessly stealing each other’s jokes as if it were just a part of the routine. So it’s not surprising the film really doesn’t go anywhere, languishing by as Simmons tries to re-woo a long lost girlfriend (Leslie Mann), going to comedy gigs, hoping that life will throw you a fastball down the middle. Success and comedy comes naturally to these characters, and this is in no way an examination of the difficulties toward breaking into the industry. Apatow spends little to no time on the art of Comedy, the process, the experience beyond a few improv sessions, favoring time spent with friends, both faux and real.
It’s an odd epic not without its pleasures (the Eminem cameo and Eric Bana’s small role provide much needed comedic shock), and Apatow’s scope is admirable. But the film is entirely too inert at drama and unfunny in comedy to tow either side of the genre line, making it a strange moment of banal creative expression for a director just finding his rhythm.