As the newly crowned king of adult comedies (not necessarily of the raunchy, R-rated variety, although that also applies), Judd Apatow has forged a career by making films that revolve around a character with just slightly more heart and brains than your typical comedic lead — peel-back-the-layers types. With Funny People, Apatow sticks to the formula that served him well in The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but slightly tweaked. If Virgin was about a guy who had his shit together but needed to get laid, and Knocked Up was about a guy who got laid and then had to get his shit together, Funny People is about a guy who has shit and always gets laid, but still needs to figure out what matters.
The film stars Adam Sandler as George Simmons, a successful comedian and sellout actor (self-deprecation, anyone?) who finds out he’s dying, seeks human connection in the form of up-and-coming comedian Ira (Seth Rogen), finds out he’s not dying anymore, looks to rekindle love with an old flame (Leslie Mann) under the guise of a fresh start, and manages to piss off everyone who cares about him in the process. If the path Simmons takes seems contrived, it is. And yet, this is only because Simmons, even more than previous Apatow leads stuck in arrested development, is the prototype of infantilized manhood; he’s misanthropic and self-centered, disillusioned and spoiled. Simmons’ pampered lifestyle has caused him to forget what it’s like to live a “normal” life, and throughout the film he refuses to take any steps toward maturity. Sandler is fantastic here, playing Simmons as both an appealing, quick-witted wise-ass and as a frustratingly puerile jerk. It’s the kind of performance sure to engender endless praise for Sandler’s return to “real” acting, and reductive as such a sentiment is, it’s not wrong exactly: indeed, this is the actor’s best performance since Punch-Drunk Love, and arguably better. He rids himself almost entirely of his typical Sandler-isms — which, to be clear, aren’t typically a deficit, but their absence is noticeable — delivering a performance that’s deeply personal, but also acutely observed and removed of too much familiarity.
But the most refreshing thing about Funny People is that the film is truly driven, as the title communicates, by funny people. Differing from his previous directorial efforts, as well as the similarly shaped ones he’s recently produced (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad), Apatow’s latest is not a joke-centric movie, and even though the characters here are mostly comedians, the big gags and extended comedic motifs that typically characterize Apatow’s films are absent. Admittedly, this results in a film that may disappoint those seeking it out only for the familiar hilarity and juvenalia, as the laughs here are not as frequent or as forceful. But for viewers who have waiting for the more dramatic material from Apatow films to be excised and platformed, Funny People is primed to please.
That’s not to say the weightier content here is entirely successful; admittedly, the cancer angle is a bit underdeveloped and can skew unappealingly melodramatic, but the film is one that continues to come back to the notion of growth. With this in mind, each actor is given greater attention and their roles are imbued with more complexity than in previous Apatow films, wherein characters often existed solely to sling jokes and alley-oop gags to one another. Rogen and Mann, in particular, both hit the right notes in their more serious, less showy roles. Of course, Apatow critics will still find the opportunity to complain about runtime (here, nearly two and a half hours), misappropriated dramatic themes, and an arguably unholy mixture of the crude and the sensitive. And yes, as with all of his films, the pathologically indulgent Apatow could have shaved a few minutes off here and there, and Simmons’ disease is indeed handled a bit listlessly given its essential narrative function here. But with Funny People, Apatow is demonstrating growth as a filmmaker, willing to switch up his formula and stave off a plateau in quality. In breaking from his penchant for stereotypical characters — always some version of an emotional galoot, lovable and unripe — Apatow here delivers the finest combination of affecting drama and relaxed comedy that we’ve seen from the filmmaker thus far.