The funniness of people has been a subject of interest to entertainers for many years. We know this from TV shows such as Animals are the Funniest People, America’s Funniest People, and several called People Are Funny, from several different decades. We know it from movies such as Funny Stories, Funny People, a French-language film from Cameroon, and of course Funny People (1977) and Funny People II (1983), two Candid Camera-style adventures in South Africa from the director of The Gods Must Be Crazy.
And we know it from writer-director-producer-comedy-godfather Judd Apatow, who has been involved with many shows and movies about the funniness of people, such as, most recently, Funny People. This is only the third film Apatow has written and directed (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up are the other two), but it is distinctly his most ambitious. Which means it isn’t always funny. In a good way. Sometimes it’s very tender and sad. Sometimes it’s angry, and so ashamed of its tenderness and sadness that it reflexively rebuffs them with hostility and absurdity. And dick jokes. Funny People, in other words, is a movie about the human condition.
Imagine “Tears of a Clown” as a feature film, and with Adam Sandler instead of Smokey Robinson. Sandler plays George Simmons, a successful but evidently miserable middle-aged comedy star (of such highly lucrative movie mediocrities as MerMan, Astro-Nut and My Best Friend is a Robot, among many others) whose jaded, monstrously self-absorbed soul gets an existential jolt when he’s diagnosed with a potentially terminal disease. Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright, a comedy up-and-comer still finding his voice, who lands a dubious gig as George’s personal assistant, joke writer, and reluctant emotional caretaker.
As George grapples with his illness, tries to reconnect with his now-married ex, Laura (Leslie Mann), and inevitably tangles with her husband, Clarke (Eric Bana), Ira takes whatever mentoring he can get. But it strains Ira’s already competitive relations with his roommates, Mark (Jason Schwartzman), the self-satisfied star of a dumb new sitcom, and Leo (Jonah Hill), another aspiring comedian (“the fatter version of you,” as George puts it to Ira).
There’s also Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), a girl Ira likes, who is another comedian and is notably self-possessed, but also seems only to exist in the movie as a token of female self-possession. Apatow has been accused of insufficiently developing the roles he writes for women, and Funny People best answers that accusation with a substantial — and excellently acted — role for Mann (who is Apatow’s wife), albeit one requiring her to say things like,“How could you cheat on me? I was so hot!” and “That is a pussy move!”
Really, though, the movie’s most essential and most developed relationship is between Ira and George, and it gets much mileage from wondering whether they ever can manage the maturity to really be friends.
We have no shortage now of films whose subject is vulnerable male self-centeredness, but Apatow is approaching mastery of the form. It helps that he’s known his stars for a long time and fully understands their comic personas. More important is that he treats his characters so generously, articulating and allowing their flaws with grace and good humor. Yes, we get it: They’re not just funny; they’re people.