For a film so light on laughs, Funny People is a rather misleading title. Even Apatow enthusiasts who have become accustomed to this auteur’s unique blend of toilet humour and morality may struggle to get to grips with his latest, more serious affair. I say this not as a criticism, but as a warning for any filmgoer anticipating belly laughs. Anyone expecting The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) or Knocked Up (2007) will be sorely disappointed. And rightly so. What makes Funny People such a success is the director’s unwillingness to coast along on his perfectly established formula.
It may be his weakest comedy thus far (although the Jewish-ness is ramped up significantly), but in regards to filmmaking he has far surpassed himself. The moral teachings of previous efforts have largely been replaced with a far more ambiguous message. George Simmons, played brilliantly by Adam Sandler, is obnoxious throughout and rarely provides the audience even the slightest opportunity to empathise. Unlikeable protagonists are notoriously difficult to realise effectively and Funny People displays incredible boldness by postponing this characters reformation until the very last scene. Yet somehow it pays off. Ok, perhaps not in the conventionally rigid manner expected of a typical Hollywood flick, but cheerful resolutions are not the chief concern here. Just look at Seth Rogen’s turn as a wannabe comic whose indistinct yearnings render him virtually impotent when faced with George’s illness or the criminally underused Jonah Hill as a competitive sell-out.
Clearly Apatow is far more interested in exposing the existential crisis of his characters and in the process demonstrates a penchant for dissecting the human condition, possibly even better than (whisper it!) Woody Allen has been able to do. Of course, this newfound maturity is helped enormously by Janusz Kaminski’s beautiful cinematography as environments are bathed in warm glows recalling Minority Report (2002) and Catch Me If You Can (2002). The cast also is uniformly strong, with Sandler in particular recalling the tragic lead in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) while Rogen excels with a less-is-more performance as the second bill straight-man. Structurally it’s loose even for improvisational standards and the expected love story is somewhat of an afterthought, but this is immaterial if one can appreciate its emotional core; one where the focus is less on the Funny and more on the People.