Funny People was a movie killed by marketing off the screen and damaged onscreen by a lack of restraint. The fact that the picture needed to be reined in also filtered into a festering backlash against writer/director/producer Judd Apatow, if the glee that seemed to surround the film's box office failure this past summer is any evidence. There's nothing other people hate so much as success, and following a string of hits that included Knocked Up and Superbad, Apatow's detractors were ready to see the filmmaker fall on his face. It's too bad, because Funny People is actually a pretty good movie, a fact that seems to have been lost in everything else surrounding it.
What Funny People is not, however, is a comedy. Not really. The ad campaigns for the picture seemed to pussyfoot around that fact, with the commercials and trailers doing their best not to let you know that the flick was more of a drama about comedians than a jokefest with occasional bouts of sentiment. Naturally, the premise meant there would be some jokes, and I guess those were the easiest things to pull out and fashion into digestible clips. It's not like Adam Sandler hasn't been successful in dramatic roles before, so I am not sure what the bean counters were so afraid of.
Sandler stars in Funny People as George Simmons, a stand-up comic whose turn into acting has resulted in great fame and success on the back of kid-friendly movies like Merman, where he plays a fellow with a fish tail, and Re-Do, a comedy about a grown man turned back into a baby. When George is diagnosed with a rare blood disease and put on an experimental drug regimen, there isn't much hope that he'll come out of it alive. Staring into the abyss, he realizes that his life is empty. Success has come at the price of personal relationships. The one that still stings is the woman he lost twelve years prior, an actress named Laura (Leslie Mann) that he cheated on. Laura now lives in Northern California with two kids and an Australian husband (Eric Bana). She and George are barely on speaking terms.
This soul searching causes George to return to his roots, and he goes to a comedy club to unleash some of his anger through stand-up. There he meets Ira (Seth Rogen), a young comedian clumsily trying to make his way in the field. Ira lives with two other young up-and-comers. His buddy Leo (Jonah Hill) is also a stand-up comic, and Mark (Jason Schwartzman) stars on an NBC sitcom called Yo Teach...!. As the least successful member of the trio, Ira still sleeps on the couch. Despite being a terminal nice guy, when George invites Ira and Leo to write for him, he quickly cuts Leo out of the deal. He takes the job as George's assistant all for himself, becoming the neurotic performer's only confidante. Ira rides the wave of illness with him, including the house cleaning, both literal and metaphorical. Eventually, George makes one last bid for Laura, and the friendship between the two men goes off the rails.
There is a lot of good stuff in Funny People. The best of it revolves around George's day-to-day. Comedians are often strange individuals, and George has his fair share of oddball habits. He's also a total jerk a lot of the time, and he and Ira bond in strange ways. George rarely stops being "on," and so he regularly riffs at the younger man's expense. At the same time, these insult sessions morph into mentoring. George regularly pushes Ira to be better, either by giving him an opening slot at an appearance or encouraging him to get over himself and pursue the girl he likes, a comedian who appears to be modeled on early Janeane Garofalo, played with adorable snideness by Aubrey Plaza (a regular on Parks and Recreation). Theirs is a friendship built on necessity, but one that George can't admit he needs. And, of course, there is the jealousy: George could never let Ira eclipse him or even forget his place. Remember that thing I said about people hating it when others become successful? (Morrissey said it, too...it's really laughable....)
The back-and-forth between the characters does provide Funny People with some good laughs, as do the endless cameos by famous comics. Paul Reiser, Sarah Silverman, Andy Dick, and Charles Fleischer all get stand-out moments playing themselves, though the top prize goes to a scene between Ray Romano and Eminem. All of these appearances walk the line between reality and fiction, the actors toying with their own persona and also taking gentle digs at Sandler. In fact, the star really deserves some credit for having such a clear view of himself and his career. There is something special about his performance here, and it's kind of easy to miss. It certainly must be a rare gift to play "yourself" and yet be so convincing at it, the audience forgets it's you you're lampooning. That's not Adam Sandler up there, that's George Simmons. You think that's easy? Okay, let's video tape you being "you" while speaking these lines I wrote for you. I guarantee you will fail at being yourself.
Apatow does an excellent job finding the drama in this situation, and he manages to walk the high wire for most of Funny People, portraying both the nature of George's illness and the reality of a comedian's lifestyle with real truth. The problem with the movie is practically an embarrassment of riches. Funny People is too long and there is too much of everything--too many divergent story lines, too many characters. As much as I enjoy the chemistry between Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Jason Schwartzman, the subplots with the three roommates never really go anywhere, nor do they really add anything to the overall narrative. There is no payoff, for instance, from Ira selling out Leo, and there isn't really anything done with Leo selling himself out and joining Yo Teach...! either. All this stuff does is prolong the rest of the story, so that by the time George is finally chasing after Laura, the audience has already grown restless. This is what Funny People has been building toward, the place where George either makes a change or blows it, and Apatow has worn us out by the time he gets there. Funny People should have been a two-hour film, not two-and-a-half. Apatow also has a tendency to let a scene roll at a leisurely, conversational pace, and some loving trims here and there could have really tightened this one up. (The extended cut only adds seven minutes, so I doubt that's the problem.)
Thankfully, home viewing allows for pausing and bathroom breaks, and so an overly long movie can be made more digestible just by giving more control to the viewer. Funny People is worth the patience, take it in two chunks if you have to. If you don't, you'll miss an amazing cast working at the top of their game, some inspired moments of comedy, and ultimately, a poignant resolution to a thoughtful drama.
Funny People is given a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that looks stellar. The image is crisp, the colors are good, the blacks strong. An excellent job here.
The film is presented in two formats, the theatrical cut (146 minutes) and an extended version (153 minutes). The theatrical cut plays as the default, you have to select the longer version via the special features menu. The longer cut essentially consists of extending pre-existing scenes rather than any radical story alterations or additions.
The soundtrack is given a 5.1 mix in English, as well as 2.0 mixes in French and Spanish. The original audio sounds great, with lots of depth and nuance.
Subtitles are provided in all the spoken languages, including English geared toward the Deaf and Hearing Impaired. The bonus disc is also subtitled, though its only audio track is English 2.0.
Funny People is released as a two-disc edition in a standard-sized case with an outer slipcover. DVD 1 features both cuts of the movie, as well as an audio commentary with Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler, and Seth Rogen that is funny and informative, the gentlemen have a good rapport. What is most essential in this commentary is the way it dissects the reality from the fiction. So much of what makes this movie work is the attention to detail, the blending of real footage from the lives of Sandler and Apatow with the made-up world of George Simmons, including movie clips and posters. They point out what is real and what is not, and where it came from, and also discuss the biographical details that informed the script. All while goofing on each other.
This disc also has a gag reel, just under 4 minutes, featuring mainly flubs and also a great unused joke with folk singer James Taylor.
DVD 2 has a bunch of extras featuring excised material from the movie:
* Deleted Scenes: Eleven complete scenes clocking in 21 minutes, 24 seconds. Includes appearances by Brian Posehn and Judd Apatow himself, neither of whom appear in the movie.
* Extended & Alternate Scenes: Six scenes, running about 19 minutes, featuring longer versions of stuff in the movie, including bits with Andy Dick, Ray Romano, Eminem, and Carol Leifer, as well as one very funny scene where we hear George Simmons' theories on the truth of comedy.
* More Gag Reel: Over 7 minutes of more bloopers.
* Line-O-Rama: 4 minutes, 12 seconds of ad-libs and line variations showing different versions of jokes used in the movie. Most surreal is footage of Sandler doing the motion capture for the man-baby from Re-Do.
There are a handful of documentaries about the film. The most substantial is "Funny People Diaries: A Documentary in 4 Parts," a 1-hour, 15-minute collection of Judd Apatow's video diary from the set, taking us from start of production to the end. Apatow is also the focus of "Judd's High School Radio Show," a 3-and-a-half minute segment about the radio program Apatow did as a teenager. He used to interview comedians, and we hear snippets to his recordings of Garry Shandling, Harold Ramis, Howie Mandel, Jay Leno, and more, along with photos of the young man with his interview subjects.
The "Raaaaaaaandy! Documentary" is a 22-minute piece on Aziz Ansari's character from the film, a rude-humored comic that is supposed to have become a sensation. This funny piece is played straight, as if it were real. Randy is kind of a parody of Dane Cooke filtered through a hiphop prism. The featurette also has cameos from The Office's Ellie Kemper, Parks & Recreation's Nick Offerman, and Jimmy Kimmel as himself.
Taking us further into the real vs. fiction realm, there are several extras that show us the truth of the stand-up and also the fake stuff invented for the movie. "From the Archives" is just over 12 minutes of old material, including Apatow and Sandler on Bill Maher's old show in 1990 (alongside Steve Allen), Sandler's first Letterman appearance in 1991, and a video of Seth Rogan in 1995, performing his act at thirteen years old. There is also a full prank phone call from 1990, a video of Sandler calling a credit card company, which we see a part of at the start of Funny People.
"The Films of George Simmons" is just under 6 minutes of clips from the invented comedies Re-Do, Sayonara Davey (with Ken Jeong), and Merman. Likewise, we get a look at Yo Teach...!, featuring a clip from the "MC Shakespeare" episode and a fake "Behind the Scenes" featurette.
A "Music" section features two songs performed by James Taylor from the concert excerpted in the movie ("Shower the People" and "Secret O' Life"), two songs from the jam between Jon Brion and Adam Sandler (Ringo Starr's "Photograph" and the Beat's "Save it for Later"), and a behind-the-scenes featurette about RZA, a little under 4 minutes on how the legendary hiphop producer got a bit part in the movie and some freestyle rap, Wu-Tang style.
Just about every menu on DVD 2 also has added footage and deleted scenes, making nearly every byte contained on the disc bonus material.
Highly Recommended. Despite its flaws, Funny People is another great movie from Judd Apatow, showing the director maturing as a dramatist and relying less on the outrageous humor that earned him his reputation. Taken this way, we can call the problems with Funny People merely growing pains, the strain of a creative mind stretching his muscles. Adam Sandler shines here as a comedian facing his own mortality, questioning what he has done with his career and how he let the love of his life (a wonderful Leslie Mann) get away. At the same time, it's a story of friendship, with Seth Rogen playing the young comic Sandler takes under his wing. Packed with cameos from famous comedians, and then packed further with a ton of bonus features on this 2-disc release, Funny People kills as a DVD.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.