Judd Apatow's new movie, Funny People, is more ambitious and less successful than his previous films, the easy-to-digest and massively popular romantic comedies The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Funny People is a sort of message movie, a take on the classic story about a dying man trying to get his life right, told from stand-up comedy's backstage.
Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, a comedian much like Sandler himself -- a famous guy who's been in a bunch of crappy movies -- and the film uses Sandler's life and career as a stand-in for Simmons' own. It opens with vintage camcorder footage of a young Sandler making prank calls, and later footage of a young Sandler working his way up the stand-up circuit, telling inchoate jokes and getting by on sheer charisma. As with all his serious movies, Sandler plays a restrained, tight-lipped version of himself, sublimating his usual aggression to project regret. He's not a great actor, but all he has to do is play himself as if he were about to die, and he does a pretty good job.
Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright (born Ira Wiener, an inevitable showbiz Jewish name change), a slightly talented up-and-comer on the stand-up circuit who happens to meet Simmons and becomes his assistant and co-writer. Simmons holds him somewhere between compliment and contempt, and the audience, seeing him tell a few of his barely decent jokes without much success, feels about the same. Rogen allows himself to be less funny than in any other movie he's ever starred in, and is generous in letting Sandler upstage him.
Movies about artists are an ever-popular genre, from Shakespeare in Love to Dreamgirls, Basquiat to Pollack. But movies about comedians are fewer and less popular. I can think of two reasons. Comedians are neurotic and narcissistic not just by personality but by profession, and the warts-and-all approach leaves little to sympathize with. Moreover, while a movie about a great writer who was a difficult person can pay off by showing the wonderful novel that resulted, the greatest thing a comedian can create is a joke. In Judd Apatow movies, that joke will almost always involve a dick. And no one cares about the blood and sweat that goes into refining a dick joke.
Still, there have been some good ones, and Funny People is one of them. Billy Crystal's lovely Mr. Saturday Night, about an almost-star of the Milton Berle era with a tendency towards self-destruction, accurately depicts the use of jokes as a defense mechanism, so that hilarity comes out as hostility, a substitute for genuine emotional expression. Comedian, the documentary that showed Jerry Seinfeld getting back on the road to try to rebuild his stand-up career, gets right the tremendous disparity in the clubs between those who have it -- like Seinfeld -- and those who don't, like Orny Adams, the hapless comedian the film holds up as Jerry's foil. Sandler and Rogen in Funny People share the same dynamic.
And, perhaps, the most notorious was The Aristocrats, a documentary which featured over a hundred comedians telling versions of a classic blue joke, the bluest joke one could ever tell, with a bare vaudeville framework -- a family act in a talent agent's office -- and unlimited improvisational license to go to the darkest reaches of the human imagination for shock laughter. The movie itself is uneven, only as strong as the cast member onscreen at the time, but through the telling it reveals the lonely possibilities and limitations of the comic process. On a DVD extra, Kevin Pollak tells a version of the joke while doing a dead-on impression of Albert Brooks, and then says, regretfully, "The trippy thing about doing Brooks, though, is that I'm faster and funnier than I am as myself. It's very, very sad... Literally, I'm listening to myself and thinking, why am I never this funny?"
Apatow's mistake in Funny People is going straight for the heartstrings by opening with death. As always, his heart's in the right place, but just as inevitably, the movie runs long and the emotional resolution feels forced -- just like it did in Judd's last two movies. And it's unnecessary. Even without imminent death, comedians have plenty to worry about: they know they're not masters of their own inspiration, and they constantly fear a silent audience, a blank mind, and the disappearance of everything that ever made anyone think they were funny. Comedians will always feel inadequate to the joke and helpless to the fate that brings them a laugh one minute and deserts them the next. Or goes to the next guy. As Crystal says in Mr. Saturday Night: "I wanted it so bad, to be the guy who, when he walked into the Friars [Club], everybody turns around, and they say, 'Why him, that lucky bastard? I'm funnier than him.' I wanted to be that guy."
Or, as Kevin Pollak asked himself while hearing himself improvise: "Why am I never this funny?"