Here's the measure of how flawless Judd Apatow's track record hasbeen: when I saw Adam Sandler was the star of Apatow's new FunnyPeople, I stopped thinking it would blow before the trailer wasdone.
When I say I think Sandler's a clown, and not one of the good ones butone that inflates your cat like a balloon and knots it up into abulbous balloon dog, understand I say that as someone who thinksBilly Madison (and to a lesser extent Happy Gilmore) isa hilarious masterpiece and the spiritual godfather of the violent,absurdist comedies Will Ferrell usually stars in these days. Sandlerused to be killer.
She's now married to someone else.
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Brilliantly, Funny People opens with a clip of him not as he'sknown now -- that guy who spends all movie screaming lobotomized jokesuntil a lethally sappy ending where he learns the meaning of love -- butas he used to be way way back when, quick-witted and winningly goofy.The clip itself is funny; so is the brutally clear point aboutSandler. Oddly life-affirming as it is, Funny People comes outwith its teeth showing, too.
Seth Rogen's trying to be a stand-up, but in the meantime he's workingat a grocery deli, failing to impress the crowds on open mike night,and getting mocked by his more successful friends.
Sandler's on the other end of the career arc, a dude who used to beseriously funny but who's since cashed in to do a series of awful,low-brow comedies. After he's diagnosed with terminal leukemia, hisinstincts are to jump back on the stage and get back to his roots.
Thing is, he's way out of practice, and he's in a darker place thesedays. To get back on track, he hires Rogen to write jokes for him,developing an unlikely friendship and launching Rogen's career.
To imply that's the entire plot is like saying Lord of the Ringsis about a misbehaving piece of jewelry. Writer/director Apatowhas always kept his movies loose and wide-ranging, and FunnyPeople covers the most territory yet. It could easily have feltplodding and unfocused if it weren't so damn good.
To the surprise of no one but unfrozen cavemen and time-travelers from1998, that distant time before the Legions of Apatownia began to puttheir hilarious boot to our throats, Funny People is very, veryfunny. The fact it's billed as a drama must be especially humiliatingfor everyone else in Hollywood who makes a living trying to makepeople laugh, because apparently even Apatow's serious movies arefunnier than anything else on the screen.
They're also so unformulaic they make math textbooks combust andlesser screenwriters continue not caring that everything they writefeels like copies of itself. When Sandler learns he's fought off hisillness, it doesn't exactly give him a new lease on life and make himso wise God invites him up to Heaven to help retroactively revise thatwhole Leviticus thing. Sandler tries to do better, yeah, but it turnsout doing better is really effing hard.
The realism of the movie's emotions is propped up at every turn by thestrength of its details and the subtly unflattering picture of thenasty side of what it means to be a comedian, from their backbiting tothe way they wave their fame around like a flag where the nationalsymbol is a lady taking off her clothes.
Apatow's been a stand-up himself, and judging from the 12,000 cameosin Funny People he knows everyone alive who's ever told a joke,from Ray Romano and Paul Reiser on down to the guy who writes theLaffy Taffy wrappers. His understanding of that world feelsencyclopedic; when he criticizes it, it's with the professionalism ofa trained assassin.
That by itself would have made the movie. Along with Sandler'sperformance -- he's basically playing a version of himself, but in amade-up fantasy world where he became funny again, and at the sametime emerged as a lonely, tragic figure -- Funny People is adominant, surprising experience. It may be Apatow's best yet.