Judd Apatow has been writing, directing and producing most of the big comedies to have hit the big screen over the past five years. The guy knows humour and his previous two directorial efforts, The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, are two of the funniest films of recent years. Funny People is the third film that Apatow has directed, written and produced and it is a very self-reflexive look at the business of creating comedy. Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a wealthy comedy mega-star with a background in stand-up and a string of mediocre films to his name that somehow haven’t diluted his popularity. In other words, George is a version of Sandler (although a far more egotistical, unpleasant and chauvinistic version since by most accounts the real Adam Sandler is actually a very generous person). George is dying of a rare form of leukaemia, something that he only confides to his new assistant and joke writer Ira Wright (Apatow regular Seth Rogen), an aspiring comedian. Through Ira’s suggestion George gets back in touch with his family and friends, which includes ex-fiancé Laura (Leslie Mann) who now has a family of her own.
The key to enjoying Funny People is to first accept that it is not a comedy but a drama about people who work in comedy. There are funny moments but for the most part Funny People reflects many of Robert Altman’s films with its combination of multiple cameos, improvised dialogue and cynicism about the industry of making people laugh. The characters are not typical Apatow characters either as they aren’t really that likeable. What made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up such enjoyable films is that despite all their arrested adolescent behaviour and flaws, the characters were all decent guys with good intentions. Not so with Funny People: George is rude, narcissistic and callous; Ira screws over his best friend Leo (Jonah Hill); and Leo and Ira’s other housemate Mark (Jason Schwartzman) are overly competitive about making it in the comedy world.
The first section of Funny People is actually hard going because the characters are so dislikeable. The endless cameos by real life comedians playing themselves never really successfully lighten the mood either although there is one very funny scene where Eminem and Ray Romano have an altercation. Funny People picks up significantly when it begins to focus on the dynamic between George and Laura, mainly because Leslie Mann is just so terrific as Laura. It is also during these scenes that Sandler really gets to demonstrate how good he can be as a dramatic actor. The presence of Eric Bana as Laura’s obnoxious Alpha-male husband also helps to liven up these scenes. Funny People is not as good as the other films directed by Apatow and it probably would have worked better if the fairly weighty material was in the hands of a more seasoned director. Nevertheless, this is a very good film providing that you are prepared for its long running time and you aren’t expecting it to be a laugh riot.