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Crude Humor Drags Down Funny People

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Nov 24, 2009
Crude Humor Drags Down <i>Funny People</i>

DVD Release Date:  November 24, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  July 31, 2009
Rating:  R (for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality)
Genre:  Comedy
Run Time:  146 min.
Director:  Judd Apatow
Actors:  Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Aziz Ansari

Early in Funny People, the latest comedy from writer/director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The Forty-Year-Old Virgin), we see comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler) out in public, waving to the not infrequent fans who point to him, call out his name, and approach him to shake his hand or have a photo snapped. Simmons is a movie star, but he's also a stand-up comic who can blend into the background without bodyguards or an entourage.

Despite the adulation, there's an emptiness to his character, an isolation effectively captured by the great cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan). There's something weighing on his mind, and a visit to the doctor's office brings it to the surface. Simmons discovers he's suffering from a rare form of advanced leukemia, with only an 8% chance of survival. But it takes him half the movie to begin to reconnect with family and friends.

Sandler's Simmons carries a heavy narrative load in Funny People. He's not only dealing with a life-threatening illness and trying to make amends with those he's wronged in the past, but he's playing mentor to budding comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). Ira lives with another aspiring comedian, Leo (Jonah Hill), and sitcom star, Mark (Jason Schwartzman), but he can't catch a break on the local comedy-club circuit. Pressed into service one night after Simmons has done his set, Ira catches the eye and ear of the older comedian, who enlists him to write material for an upcoming gig.

The professional relationship that develops between the two comedians is the heart of the first two-thirds of Funny People, and although the comic material is raunchy, it's hard not to root for Ira. His talent needs refining, but he seems destined for something better than his job at a deli counter. Simmons is another matter. He doesn't descend into maudlin introspection after being diagnosed, but takes out his hostility onstage, aiming it at bewildered audiences.

The character who experiences a life-threatening crisis and works his way through it is all too familiar. Remember William Hurt in The Doctor or Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry, part of a rash of early-1990s films showing how Baby Boomers dealt with life-threatening incidents and illnesses? Funny People updates the formula for Generation Xers, replacing the introspective soul-searching of the earlier film cycle with Apatow's crude jokes and a routine romance. The film also adds a mentoring aspect to the mix. However, there are no great lessons learned in Funny People, no take-away message of note. Just lots of below-the-belt humor that mixes uneasily with the inescapably serious life-and-death subject matter of the film. The closest the film gets to discussion of God is a joke about atheism and a song that includes a line about the kingdom of God being in one's hands.

Simmons' medical condition is resolved long before the film itself. To its tale of mortality and mentoring, Funny People adds a lengthy romantic pursuit involving one of Simmons' old girlfriends, Laura (Leslie Mann), who's unhappily married and clinging to pleasant memories of her earlier life with the comic. Despite some nice work from Mann, and especially from Eric Bana, who plays her spouse, this extraneous storyline pushes the film's running time past the point of exhaustion.

By the end of the film, Simmons is dogged by a gang of paparazzi who follow his every step, shouting out questions about his life and career. The behavior stands in contrast to Simmons' interaction with his fans that begins the film. The reasons for this are best left unstated, but it's safe to say that the turnabout in Simmons' treatment by the public and media reveals something about how he handles the rekindled attention—and about the personal connections that get lost along the way.

The film's themes could have been made clearer were Funny People a more disciplined film. As it is, the film contains too many characters and too many subplots. Ira's roommates are good for a few laughs, but a competition between roommates for a woman's affection never gathers steam, and Simmons' pursuit of Laura feels like it could have been its own movie.

The most enjoyable aspect of Funny People is how it pokes fun at the actors' real-life vanity and career choices. Sandler has acted in his share of high-concept drek similar to Simmons' hit movies like Merman and Re-do.  Likewise, the film slyly addresses Rogen's weight-loss after Knocked Up, which has generated curiosity among film writers as to whether a slimmed-down Rogen might affect the actor's box-office appeal. "There's nothing funny about a physically fit man," Leo tells Ira, and based on the reception of Observe and Report, Rogen's previous film in which he appeared slimmer and trimmer, it's hard to disagree.

So, is Funny People funny? It's similar to Apatow's other shock comedies, specializing in vulgar humor that's now, sadly, become run-of-the-mill in its frank emphasis on sex. But whereas The Forty-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up both had positive messages about sexuality and human dignity (if one could get past the sexually explicit dialogue), Funny People doesn't have enough of a positive message to overcome its stream of bawdy stand-up comedy and profanity-laced script. The film's excessive length only magnifies its negative elements.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; extremely foul language throughout; a joke about a woman who's mistaken for a lesbian; racial epithets; frequent references to genitalia; jokes about flatulence.
  • Smoking/Drinking:  Drug use and drinking; George says he's going to the store for cigarettes.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Frequent sexual banter and joking; characters sleep with multiple partners and discuss their past conquests; a woman's breasts are shown as she has sex with George, who is shown shortly thereafter having sex with the woman's friend; George undresses a married woman and is shown afterward talking with her in bed; later, the woman involved says George performed oral sex on her but that they did not have intercourse; discussion of other forms of sexual stimulation.
  • Violence/Crime:  George offers Ira money to kill him, but is only joking; a joke about a serial killer; a fistfight and brawl.
  • Religion:  Brought up only briefly during a comedy routine in which George says his parents didn't believe in God and passed those beliefs on to him; a man tells a friend that his grandfather probably went to hell, not heaven; a song lyric states, "the kingdom of heaven is in your hands"; a man says that Buddhist friends taught him to speak from the heart, and expresses a belief in karma.
  • Marriage:  George regrets the way he treated some old flames, but expresses no regrets about his continuing sexual conquests; he pursues a married woman who believes her husband has been cheating on her; Ira says his parents are divorced; a child says a potential divorce by her parents wouldn't be good; a generation dealing with parents who divorced is contrasted to a generation that dealt with parents who abused their kids; a man says that no one who's married is happy.