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New Review: Funny People (with a few spoilers)

July 31, 2009

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They say that laughter is the best medicine but often times a smile is merely a mask to hide the pain. Judd Apatow would appear to agree with these cliches while still trying to say something new about them with his third and newest film, Funny People.

Funny People looks inside the world of comedians both up and coming such as Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) and the wildly successful George Simmons (Adam Sandler). Simmons finds out that he is dying of  a rare type of leukemia and must face his own mortality.

Ira in the mean time works at a deli counter in a grocery store (seemingly the common job these days on film for wannabe famous people, wrestlers, comedians, etc) and can’t get a date to save his life. Even his roommates prod him along in hopes of getting him to take a chance.  Leo and Mark, played by Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman both give incredible performances. But that is like saying the camera turned on properly in an Apatow production. The man knows how to make a film and to bring out great performances. There isn’t a bad banana in the bunch. Well, except for Aziz. Even with his small time on screen Aziz Ansari is bad for us, but in such a good way.

Fellow Parks and Recreation actor of Ansari’s, Aubrey Plaza, joined the cast as Daisy, Ira’s love interest. As the female comedian on stage that is often told how good she is, we hardly get any screen time with her to hear her jokes. We get that she is quirky and independent, but with her talent, we could have used much more of her.

The premise of the film begins with Simmons waking up alone in a big fancy house and after coming to terms that he may soon die he realizes that he is not happy as he once was in his youth. In an attempt to recapture it he returns to his early comic stand up days where he meets Ira. He sees something in Ira in person that he likes so he hires him to be his assistant. Although he works for him, Ira stands apart from the other help. They work as a team often writing jokes and for whatever reason, Simmons lets Ira into his life. Yet, sarcasm and humor often help him keep a wall between them. Some of the great moments in the film are when we watch Ira take the stage and move forward from his bumbling, nervous attempts to his progression into a real comedian. Rogen’s performance tells us that he has more to give than we’ve seen before, but while still keeping that sweet guy act.

But when Dr. Lars, played good naturedly by Torsten Voges, breaks the news that things are looking better, both the film and Simmons shift gears into the lesser portion of the film. Simmons, who appeared to be on the verge of opening up and letting people in finds a way to revert back to his selfish manner. Mostly, he focuses in on lost-love Laura (Leslie Mann) allowing her to throw away much of her life so that he can gain some semblance of his own. One of the slower moments of the film is the time spent with Laura while her husband is away. But when Clarke returns, played by Eric Bana, Mann shows us her stuff with a taunting Aussie accent to match his own. Bana also plays quite the comical character with his accent and over the top bravado. But is any of it necessary? Do we not understand through his return to the comedy club circuit that he is attempting to reconnect with his happier days? Can we not tell from his awkward attempt at a conversation with the maid that he is disconnected?

But as much as the film suffers from the 30 minute saga of hooking up with his ex and the drama that ensues, the overarching plot examines first and second chances at living and also explores connecting with who you are and opening up to new possibilities in life. Simmons struggles with clenching onto the memory of the past rather than trusting in anything new. For him, fame keeps him isolated. For us, we can relate because fear can keep us just as locked up and alone.Yeah, heavy stuff for a comedy. But that is the key to Apatow’s genius at comedy. He gets that inside the joke is a kernel of truth and he knows how to play off the vulnerable stuff without too much melodrama. But, the man who brought us “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” seemed to tread a little lighter in his first two films on the message. In this, we get knocked on the head a few times.

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