Thursday, July 30, 2009

King of pain

Judd Apatow grows leaps and bounds in a near masterpiece

Posted on Thu, Jul 30, 2009 at 4:00 AM

*****
Funny People
Studio: Universal Pictures
Rated: R
Cast: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill
Director: Judd Apatow
WorkNameSort: Funny People
Our Rating: 5.00

In spite of wild and misguided expectations for Judd Apatow, the writer-director and producer who has come to dominate the world of comedy in this decade, his third film after The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up is one of the funniest, quirkiest, most complicated and, yes, best movies of the year. I couldn't tell you how great stand-up comedians slay audiences with nothing more than observations about everyday life. I couldn't break down their rhythms and structural delivery or how this organic formula ' childhood embarrassment jukes plus sex life jives equals knockout punch ' comes together to express something innate about the human condition, any more than I could explain how a boxer does his thing. (And make no mistake: Stand-up comics are verbal pugilists.) And I can't spell out exactly how Funny People says so much about who these people are without showing its hand ' you'll have to see Apatow in action to believe.

The nearly two-and-a-half hour dramedy opus centers on George Simmons, a wildly successful comedian played by Adam Sandler who has channeled his juvenile humor into a career starring in admittedly terrible high-concept vehicles. He takes under his wing Ira Wright (a never-better Seth Rogen), a good-hearted but wide-eyed and naive struggling comic. Simmons pays him well to write jokes for him, having recently decided to re-enter the stand-up circuit, but Simmons' actual agenda is to use Wright as an emotional crutch. Simmons has just learned he's quickly dying from a rare disease and, having spent the last decade or so holed up in his mansion of self-loathing, has alienated everyone who once loved him. He'll pay Ira Wright to play his friend.

The problem is that Wright actually becomes his friend and won't let him die alone with unresolved issues. Wright is young enough to still believe everyone deserves to go after what they really want. Apatow is fearless enough to show that that's not always the case; some people are better left to their own destruction.

Wright lives in an apartment that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who's been around on-the-cusp talent in Los Angeles with two passive-aggressively competitive roommates, each of whom are doing better than Wright before Simmons comes around. Eventually, Wright will screw over one roommate, will be screwed over by another and will oversee the climactic, epic screwing-over of an entire family. Not a single character leaves Funny People unscathed. In a fearlessly honest, albeit depressing, revelation, Apatow makes the point that to be a good comic, to be truly funny, you must be damaged. The state of being fucked ' literally, in the case of Simmons' dead-eyed womanizing, and metaphorically, in every other aspect of his life ' is the state of being funny.

The first two acts of Funny People are consistently hysterical, even in the face of weighty pathos. But once Simmons learns ' spoiler alert to anyone who hasn't seen the trailer ' that he is getting better, the crushing realization sets in that dying might have been the better career move, an idea driven home by a conversation with Eminem, playing himself. 'What do you do now?â?� says the rapper. 'You can't go anywhere or do anything. Can't be happy.â?�

Eminem's role is the best of a cadre of cameos, mostly from comedians ' Paul Reiser, Dave Attell, Sarah Silverman, Andy Dick ' all of whom are portrayed as, if not unhappy, at the very least damaged beyond repair.

There are enormous plot lines I haven't scratched the surface of, the most important being that aforementioned family of Simmons' long-lost love, played by Leslie Mann, who is thankfully free from her previous assignments as the rage-in-a-bottle shrew. But ultimately the film comes down to Rogen's Ira Wright, put through the wringer all for the love of writing jokes. And that's what Funny People will be remembered as: Apatow's love letter to pain.

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