I won’t deny that Judd Apatow’s Funny People is interesting—so are fires, floods, pestilence and certain pathological disorders. When I first sat through the film—all 146 minutes of it—my first thought was that it might have been pretty good if about 40 minutes were hacked out. The more I think about it, I’m sure that would help, but it wouldn’t change the basic distaste I feel for this dithering comedy/drama that contains not a single character actually worth caring about. This last might work in a bleakly comic manner if Funny People didn’t insist that we feel something for the characters—when, apart from being glad that I don’t have to endure them in real life, I felt nothing.
The term “self-indulgent” always strikes me as weak criticism, if not outright wrongheaded. Supposing that we are dealing with someone out to create something for reasons beyond sheer commercial success, the act of that creation is self-indulgent on some level. By their very natures, artists are indulging themselves, their concerns, their interests—usually with the idea (and occasionally delusion) that others might find their preoccupations interesting, too. However, Apatow’s film deserves the term in all its negative import—in a way I’ve not encountered since Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara (1978) in all its original 292-minute glory. (And that had the good taste not to insinuate itself into a wide release.)
There are long, long stretches of Funny People that go nowhere and serve no discernible purpose—apart from the fact that Apatow apparently couldn’t bring himself to let them end up on the cutting-room floor. The home-movie-camcorder footage of a young Sandler making spectacularly unfunny prank calls sets the tone that this is largely a home movie that got out of hand and into multiplexes. Endless digressions into scenes involving stand-up comics getting together add an inordinate amount of footage devoted to undistinguished and not very funny stand-up routines. There’s also a peculiar segment with Sandler, Eminem, Ray Romano and Seth Rogen that qualifies somewhere on the weirdness scale close to the scene in the Paul McCartney fiasco Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984) involving Ralph Richardson, Paul and a monkey. (The two scenes actually bear an odd resemblance in tone to one another, since the former partly consists of Eminem giving Sandler a talking-to—a crude variant on what Richardson tells McCartney.) The segment with Eminem goes nowhere, isn’t terribly funny and adds nothing to the film except to illustrate all the famous folks Apatow can corral.
The story line—supposedly daring—is essentially a reshuffling of a stock Sandler shtick, i.e., life-changing event turns self-satisfied/swollen-headed guy into a nicer person. (See also Click (2006) and The Longest Yard (2005).) This round it’s that old chestnut the near-death experience in the guise of a dose of movie-style leukemia that gets sent packing with “experimental” drugs from Canada. It’s life-lesson stuff of a dusty kind that’s made somewhat interesting because Sandler’s character, George Simmons, doesn’t exactly turn around on a dime to become the wiser person who appreciates life.
That’s a plus, but the film really offers very little in addition, beyond an interminable last act involving George’s affair with ex-girlfriend, Laura (real-life Mrs. Apatow, Leslie Mann), who is now married to an annoying caricature Australian, Clarke (Eric Bana), with whom she has two children (played by real-life Apatow offspring, Maude and Iris). The most interesting aspect of this has less to do with the three directly involved than it has to do with the jealousy subtext expressed by Seth Rogen as George’s personal assistant/joke writer/friend Ira.
What Apatow seems to be after with all this is that comics are basically neither happy, nor nice, nor perhaps even capable of happiness. George’s interest in Ira is summed up in his confession to the younger man, “You’re my best friend and I don’t even like you very much.” Ira, on the other hand, probably deserves this, since he willfully cuts his friend Leo (Jonah Hill) out of a chance to write for George. George, on the other hand, tosses a thousand-dollar bonus Ira’s way after a gig—that George receives $300,000 for. These are remarkably ungenerous, frequently unpleasant people, yet we are apparently meant to like them.
There’s also—for me at least—a disconnect with reality to the whole film because it takes place in a world of utterly casual conspicuous consumption. Early on, the narcissistic George is seen in his Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-esque mansion watching old footage of himself on a bank of flat-screen TV monitors. Similarly, in the film’s last act we find that Clarke has no less than three such TVs affixed to the wall of a room in his house—on which he’s watching the same football game. Who are these people? Why do they live like this—except that they can? What possible connection do they have to anyone’s life except those in their own rarefied circle of the overprivileged? And why should we care? The answer for me is that I don’t care.
Apatow is a major figure in pop culture right now, and Funny People has already taken the box office (albeit not that spectacularly) for its opening weekend. I fully expect to be told that I’m just not “with it” and that this is the last word in edgy filmmaking. The fact is that this is a case where I don’t in the least mind not being “with it.” Rated R for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality.