The inner adult trapped inside Adam Sandler, struggling to be understood as serious or at least sympathetic, has surfaced before in movies as varied as Punch-Drunk Love and The Wedding Singer. In Funny People, Sandler plays George Simmons, a version of himself contemplating the seriousness of his own demise.
Simmons is a top grossing, gross-out comedian, an instantly recognizable celebrity, suddenly diagnosed with a hard to cure variant of leukemia. As he rewinds his life, watching DVDs of puerile movie comedies and flipping through his scrapbook of Rolling Stone covers, dissatisfaction saddens his eyes. “Is this all there is?” he asks himself. Returning to the LA comedy club where his ascent began, he delivers a dark monologue about atheist parents who imparted no hope or meaning. The gorgeous mansion overlooking the Pacific where he returns at night is a lonely place, despite the gaggle of pretty girls who follow him home.
Funny People is the latest film by writer-director Judd Apatow and something of a departure from KnockedUp and The 40-Year Old Virgin. The raunch remains, but set against the pathos of Simmons’ declining life as it intersects with wannabe comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogan) and his aspiring show biz roommates (Jason Schwartzman, Jonah Hill). Ira is a flabby-looking nerd whose appearance and delivery is almost funny for its lack of humor. Still, Simmons glimpses a sense of humor behind the boy’s unpromising appearance and hires him as joke writer, personal assistant and all-around schlep.
Ira is star struck to serve the comic who had inspired him to sharpen the pangs of his unpleasant formative years into comedy. Simmons is alternately scornful, expressing disbelief that Ira’s coddled “little faggy childhood” could be grist for humor, and supportive like a wisecracking older brother. He concedes that Ira writes some funny lines, which he delivers with great standup timing during his gig at the MySpace convention. “The more friends you have on MySpace, the less you have in real life,” he needles his digitally wired audience.
Funny People is a potluck comedy mixed with a drama of a man on his own deathwatch, petulant and angry as time fades away. Aside from mordant observations on entertainment in the age of YouTube, Apatow's production is a contemporary reiteration of the old suspicion that the people that make us laugh are the unhappiness people of all.