Tears of a Clown
Oh, people are gonna hate this movie.
Look, the jokes are not jokes in Funny People. The humorous-sounding bits of dialogue are not intended to make you laugh so much as they are intended to make you wonder why the characters uttering them are trying to make those around them laugh. It’s not that those bits aren’t pretty funny, for the most part, if you take them out of that context. It’s that that context is specifically about peeling away the top “comedian” layer from the layers underneath that are all about loneliness and anger and regret.
Most people don’t want to discover that the people making them laugh are pathetic and miserable excuses for human beings and who, probably, despise you for worshipping them. Maybe it’s because Adam Sandler generally has not made me laugh that I could laugh, although with cynical recognition at best, quite a lot, at Funny People, in which he turns his public persona inside out to show us the unfunny underbelly of the business of comedy and the unpleasant side of celebrity. I never found the likes of Happy Gilmore or The Waterboy amusing, so it’s no skin off my nose if Sandler’s alter ego here, superstar George Simmons, thinks only five-year-olds and idiots enjoy his movies, like the one in which he plays a guy who gets turned into a baby again by a wizard who nevertheless leaves his 40-something head intact atop an infant body. That’s the kind of stuff I’ve been saying all along, but I can see how that might sting Sandler fans.
And writer-director Judd Apatow (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, The 40 Year-Old Virgin), too, who returns to his roots of almost painfully wise dramedy — TV’s Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared — with Funny People, in which the comedy is not comedy but instead a symptom of pain. But the Apatow TV project this bleak but shrewd movie harkens back most to is The Larry Sanders Show, on which Apatow served as a writer and producer: the Hollywood funny people weren’t funny there, either, except as a side effect of their attempts not to have to confront their own raging personal issues.
Here, Simmons is forced to deal with his furious bitterness now that he’s learned he’s developed an awful kind of leukemia from which there is unlikely to be any recovery. He was always a jerk, we are not surprised to learn, but impending death has a way of shaking up even a guy like him. So he hires struggling comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to work as his assistant and jokewriter, but mostly so someone will be around his huge rambling manor of a house beside the servants.
Ira’s a jerk-in-training of his own sort, though on the flip side of George: his expectations from new friendships (like what he hopes will be a budding romance with a neighbor) are wildly out of whack, for one. But his emotional vulnerability to almost everyone around him envelops George in its unexpected agreeableness (Rogen here demonstrates a screen charisma that will clearly do him far more good in more sensitive movies than the likes of Knocked Up or Pineapple Express; he’s not a dude, he’s a sweetheart). And George embarks on a mission to right some of the wrongs in his life.
Happily — or, well, not, but you know what I mean — Funny People lingers on the pain, not on the sentiment that could have developed from such a scenario. Though it falls apart as a completely satisfying story toward the end, during an extended detour into an old romantic relationship of George’s that he’d like to renew (with a former actress turned mom and wife played by Leslie Mann: 17 Again, Knocked Up) and then beyond that. It’s almost as if Apatow got as scared as George himself does in the face of too much darkness: the movie stares the real upshot of its story in the face and can’t cope with it, and so tacks on an ending that’s a little more uplifting than everything that came before it suggested was in the offing.
It’ll be too late, at that point, to rescue Funny People for those Sandler and Apatow fans who were expecting a movie about a 40-something guy with his head on a baby’s body. And it disappoints, if only just a little, those of us who were hoping not to get that.