Is Judd Apatow the most committed moralist working in popular film today? If not, I’m not sure who would merit the title. Buried beneath the avalanche of fart, fat, and (most of all) penis jokes, Apatow is an adamant advocate of conventional social norms--and I mean that, incidentally, as a compliment. Pro-commitment, pro-marriage, and pro-parenthood, he makes the case not merely that love trumps sex but, more controversially, that it can be trumped in turn by deeper responsibilities.
While elements of these lessons can be found in virtually all the films he has produced or co-written over the course of his hegemonic conquest of American comedy, they are most explicit in the movies he has himself directed, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and, now, Funny People. Apatow’s new film is his most ambitious to date, and his most multi-layered. Though his two earlier comedies scratched at cultural itches with uncommon tenacity, their conceits were narrow enough to be summed up in the titles. Funny People, by contrast, wends its way through questions of loneliness and mortality, friendship and love, fidelity and deceit, choices made and opportunities missed. And, yes, it’s very funny, even for those who eventually tire of references to a particular zone of male anatomy.
The story takes place in the Hollywood microcosm of professional comedy--which is to say, Apatow’s natural habitat. Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, a decidedly Sandleresque comic, whom we first meet making crank calls in home-movie footage Apatow fortuitously shot 20 years ago when he and Sandler were roommates trying to break into show business. The young comedian is a giddy clown, calling delis in the persona of an elderly Jewish woman to complain, “I ate your roast beef and I can’t stop going to the bathroom.” His delight in his own mischief is such that he can barely stop cracking himself up.
Flash to George in the present day, his face a mask. Now fortyish, he pads around the empty mansion made possible by his graduation from standup clubs to the well-compensated but soul-crushing business of churning out family comedies--Merman, in which he burbles aquatically; Re-Do, in which he reverts to physical infancy. Rich, isolated, and bereft of purpose, he has little to live for and, as he finds out during a visit to the doctor, little time left to live: He has a rare form of leukemia, and the experimental drug regimen his specialist prescribes is given a paltry eight percent chance of success.
George begins performing half-hearted standup again and in the process meets a younger comic, Ira (Seth Rogen), who works a day job at a grocery store deli counter (shades of The Wrestler) and sleeps on the foldout couch of his more-successful comedian friends Mark (Jason Schwartzman) and Leo (Jonah Hill). To Ira’s surprise and joy, George soon hires him as a kind of one-man entourage: by day, a joke-writer, car-driver, and gopher; by night, a one-night-stand wingman and someone to talk to him while he tries to go to sleep.
Sandler’s performance is neat and nuanced, expertly capturing the shallow self-deprecation and deep entitlement of celebrityhood, the way George plays at being a regular Joe right up until the moment when someone treats him like one. His generosities have a calculated offhandedness, and demand recognition even when they’re not particularly generous--as when he offers Ira a few thousand dollars out of the $300,000 paycheck he earned at a gig for which Ira wrote the jokes. He wants Ira to be his friend, but only as long as the obligations travel in one direction; the instant reciprocation looms, Ira is immediately, often emphatically, restored to employee status.
Nevertheless, Ira slowly nudges George out into the wider world, where he continues performing, reacquaints himself with old colleagues (a dizzying array of cameos, from Sarah Silverman to Paul Reiser, Andy Dick to Eminem), and even reconciles with ex-girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann), “the one that got away.” (“Guys have that,” George explains in a standup riff, “and serial killers.”) And then, lo and behold, just as George begins to come to terms with his mortality--and the forgivenesses it wins him--he gets better. This miracle recovery, though, comes with its own complications: Death, as one friend notes, had been his “way out” of the pit of self-loathing he’d dug for himself, and now he needs another.
His hope is to find it in Laura, despite the fact that she’s now married to an Australian businessman (Eric Bana) with whom she has two daughters. Here again, though, the plot tends to curve unexpectedly: Just as the familiar tropes of the terminal-illness storyline evolve into something rather different, the redemption-of-true-love narrative, which comprises the final third of the film, veers in unexpected, and unexpectedly thoughtful, directions.
At nearly two-and-half hours, Funny People is a long film--like his protagonists, Apatow could be accused of a preoccupation with size--and occasionally a languid one. But it integrates its disparate elements more neatly than The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up did. Those films often seemed spliced together from two loosely related threads, seriocomic relationship parables intercut with scenes of a handful of guys telling each other dirty jokes. By setting Funny People among comedians, Apatow brings the two strands together and grounds the film in a world with which he and his cast are intimately familiar. (It also helps explain why everyone is so damn funny.) The scenes set in comedy clubs, the many cameos, the use of archival footage from early in Sandler’s and Mann’s careers, the inside jokes (characters keep commenting on how much weight Rogen’s Ira has lost)--all deepen the sense that this is not merely a story Apatow is telling, but a subculture he is revealing.
Like Sandler, the rest of the cast is loose and persuasive--in many cases, presumably, because they are playing aspects of themselves: the up-and-coming comic; the actress taking a break to raise her kids. (Mann and Apatow are married and, as in Knocked Up, the actresses playing her daughters are their real-life progeny, Maude and Iris.) The one exception, perhaps, is Rogen, who seems out of place at times--though only at times--as the movie’s innocent conscience. Rogen is attempting to transition from a career playing rotund slobs to a more conventional leading manhood and, whatever his ultimate destination, he’s not quite there yet.
The movie, too, feels like the work of an artist in transition, an attempt by Apatow to see how far he can push his foul-mouthed bromances toward earnest drama before finally having to let go of the dick jokes. The answer is pretty far, but in the end perhaps not far enough. Funny People is Apatow’s most mature work to date and, I think, his best, a film that acknowledges that deep-seated problems are seldom amenable to easy solutions. But to a greater extent even than his earlier offerings, it is an uneasy hybrid, a merging of forms--the scatological and the didactic, the broadly comic and the acutely observed--that will never truly be in harmony. Hard as Apatow may try to blur the distinction, one day he will have to accept the eternal dichotomy first observed by the Peter Paul Candy Company: Sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don’t.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.