Funny thing about ‘Funny People’? It lacks laughs

Posted Aug. 06, 2009, at 6:14 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

In theaters

FUNNY PEOPLE, written and directed by Judd Apatow, 146 minutes, rated R.

The new Judd Apatow movie, “Funny People,” poses an interesting question worth exploring.

For years, the modern comedy has been driven more by raunch than by wit. Box office figures support the fact that today’s mainstream audiences are more interested in laughs elevated by poop jokes than they are by, say, well-written bons mots that eschew le poo.

Apatow’s two previous films as a writer-director (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,”) embraced these more base leanings, but now, in his third film, he has taken a turn that could either turn off his fan base or find him a new one.

Let’s be clear: There are no shortage of sex jokes in “Funny People” — crudity abounds here and much of it is funny — but there also is no denying that this is Apatow’s most ambitious, serious-minded comedy to date. The script is injected with unexpected jolts of substance, drama and life-threatening health issues for the main character, so much so that too often there are long stretches between the laughs and, to accommodate the drama, the film is a slog, coming in at a bloated 2½ hours.

The movie stars Adam Sandler as the comedy superstar George Simmons, who appears to have it all — success, fame, great wealth — until you look a little more closely at his life. George is a lonely man who, as the film starts, is faced with a death sentence if an experimental drug doesn’t work to rid his body of a life-threatening disease. Since there is only an 8 percent chance of that happening, George takes to the comedy circuit and delivers performances that are bleak, to say the least.

Realizing this, he decides to hire the young comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who works days at a fast food joint to help pay the bills and who shares an apartment in Los Angeles with his friends (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman). George sees flashes of promise in Ira’s stand-up routine and asks him to write jokes for him. It’s a gig that leads to a full-time job as Ira becomes George’s personal assistant and then caregiver as George’s health declines.

When circumstances allow for love to re-enter George’s life, it’s through his one true love, Laura (Apatow’s wife, the excellent Leslie Mann), who now is married to a hunky Australian (Eric Bana) actively cheating on her. When she and George reconnect, their connection is undeniable and love blooms again, but since Laura has two young children, what’s the cost to them should Laura and George fully rekindle that love? More complicated, how do these and the film’s other dour elements make for a consistently rousing comedy?

They don’t. When done well, the raunch comedy genre can be fun. All one needs to do is to witness Apatow’s successful two previous films to see just how fun. So what we have to question in “Funny People” is this: Should Apatow’s decision to add a string of maudlin elements to his script be considered creative growth, or a creative setback?

The answer is a bit of both. This isn’t a bad movie so much as it is an admirable failure. The performances from the cast are excellent. It’s also nice to see the talented Apatow taking a risk and reaching for something more. But if that reach means sacrificing laughs in a movie being billed as a comedy, there aren’t enough laughs in “Funny People” to make it a comedy worth recommending.

Grade: C+

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

Several new titles are available on DVD and Blu-ray disc this week, the best of which is the romance comedy “I Love You, Man” (DVD, Blu-ray), with Paul Rudd and Jason Segal featured as two budding friends who bring out the best and worst in each other among the film’s ongoing set of pratfalls. The movie is about male bonding — the necessity of it, the apparent dangers inherent in it — and the result is charming, smart and likeable. Echoes of “The Odd Couple” abound, with a shot of Judd Apatow’s earlier influence tossed in to spark the tomfoolery.

Less successful is the Blu-ray release of the risible romantic comedy “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey struggling through a cliché-heavy script and losing their audience in 10 minutes, as well as the thriller “Obsessed” (DVD, Blu-ray), a direct rip-off of “Fatal Attraction” that stars Idris Elba in the Michael Douglas role, Beyonce Knowles in the Anne Archer role, and Ali Larter in the Glenn Close role. Sex it up, throw in a catfight between Knowles and Larter that admittedly is fun to watch, and you have in spirit a near carbon copy of “Fatal Attraction,” but also a movie that lacks a shape and an edge of its own.

A modest improvement over that film is “Dragonball: Evolution” (DVD, Blu-ray), which is based on the popular Japanese manga and anime franchise. Not surprisingly, the movie will appeal best to fans of the series, but for the casual viewer unfamiliar with them (like me), the plot is a maze of confusion, the action is chaos, the special effects are cheap, and the storyline and characters have all the substance of a video game. You know, like “Pong.”

Dragging the week further into the basement is the sci-fi movie “Mutant Chronicles” (DVD, Blu-ray), with Thomas Jane, John Malkovich and Ron Perlman slumming grandly through the gory stupidity. But saving the week are the Blu-ray releases of the timeless rock band spoof “This is Spinal Tap,” as well as Irwin Allen’s Academy Award-winning “The Towering Inferno,” which finds Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Fred Astaire, Faye Dunaway and O.J. Simpson, of all people, scrambling amid a tornado of high-rise embers while managing all the larger-than-life melodramas exploding at its core.

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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