While by no means a perfectly executed film, Funny People has enough strength and heart that justifies the price of admission. Director Judd Apatow may fail in sending viewers home with an altered perspective on comedians or rejuvenated excitement for life, but he succeeds in depicting a conflicted and morose character trying to recapture the funny.
I agree with Alex Remington that the movie "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." Those films exemplify Apatow at his best, bringing cleverly-articulated, smart and oftentimes vulgar comedy to more serious situations and relationships.
Remington, however, contends that "Apatow's mistake in Funny People is going straight for the heartstrings by opening with death." It is clearly a decision that Apatow made to dive right into the darker side of George Simmons' (Adam Sandler) life, rather than sugar-coating it with a montage of scenes that have led up to this introductory moment to the main character.
In Virgin, this succeeds in portraying Andy as pathetic, and in Knocked Up, Ben as juvenile. In each of these cases, Apatow includes a short, but image-creating, selection of scenes that quickly paints the character's traits, experiences and shortcomings.
Funny People doesn't begin that same way. It also doesn't immediately dive into death and disease, either. You'll notice that, at the top, there's a collection of home videos displaying Sandler/Simmons making some prank phone calls. He's young and full of life. What follows is a glimpse into the silence that engulfs Simmons life a few decades later. Even before his diagnosis toward the beginning, Simmons lives in a dark, empty house inside a dark, empty life. Apatow intended for viewers to compare that emptiness to the laughter and camaraderie that fills the scenes behind the opening credits.
Now, all of this happens pretty quickly in the first few scenes of the movie. But what's significant is that it exists and it is supposed to resonate. For Simmons, it clearly does. He admits later on in the movie that he made some poor decisions in his life, recognizing that he was once on a path toward happiness and possibility. Despite his professional success (and bordering on a movie cliche), the man discovered that money and fame couldn't bring him everything he ever wanted.
So to say that the movie dives too quickly into the dark side is an error. I too noticed and registered how Apatow chose to bring the illness to the surface so early on. But that's not what sets this movie back. In fact, it is what propels it forward. It is less a result of an unexpected and rare illness that draws Simmons to Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) and more his overall way of life. Granted the diagnosis is what awakens him from the darkness that already covered and defined him.
Where this movie struggles, I believe, is later on when Simmons is forced to confront the tension between his restored optimism and the recognition that others weren't waiting close by for him to be revived. While they're impressed by Simmons' zest for life and pursuit of restoration, he still lacks some basic skills in love, humanity, compassion, and responsibility that he missed out on while others were growing and learning. He never progressed past being the prankster we were first introduced to at the start.