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When Comedians Get Serious

When viewed through the eyes of a movie with an effectual story, Funny People has some value.

Movie title: Funny People (2009)
Spoilers ahead: No

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Funny People stands to be counted (hunched over and unshaven, but still standing) as a film that lets down its audience while still retaining a measurable amount of value. You go in wanting to love it. You want to laugh out loud. But to your dismay, you go out (at least marginally) disappointed—regardless of how optimistically you marched in.

Love Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Eric Bana all you want. None come close to making this film pay out on the promised dividends of laughter. It does deliver the goods in other areas by offering raunchy sexual references, some amusing verbal exchanges, and a couple of intentionally offensive stereotypes. Not to be missed, it becomes very clear very fast that this really is how comedians talk to each other while sitting around and having a Diet Coke.

And they’re just people like you and I (their heightened levels of unhappiness and inner-pains notwithstanding). They have family problems, past regrets, failed marriages, and the males get disappointed with their “small packages” just like any other dude who stares at himself in the bathroom mirror too long. When not on stage performing, funny people are fighting their own battles and putting up with their own families. And to those family members, they aren’t stars at all. They may not even be that funny, just grown-up versions of the kids that once played on Wee Wheelers in the backyard. Funny People has the “people” part down in highlighting the complexities of behavior and relationships on an amazingly intricate level.

Behold, a film about the lives of comedians with their pains and struggles! From these dry, empty wells of human beings comes comedy. But don’t think it’s funny; it’s not really funny. It could have been titled, “When Comedians Get Serious,” and that would have worked like a charm. Not fifteen minutes in and you’re convinced that the script is working overtime to actually kill the effectiveness of what little comedic output it offers. What cannot be killed (or ignored) is the purposely drama-laden storyline that demands the same attention you would put toward any Lifetime movie about a woman who survives her ordeal with a pedophilic father and husband who gave their son genital warts. Watched with those dark glasses on, the film succeeds.

Adam Sandler is George Simmons, a world-famous comedian (in other words, a fake version of his real life self). As a powerhouse funny man in the movies, Simmons is in and out of the comedy clubs where he meets the up-and-comers, one of them being Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). Ira is a struggling comedian who badly wants to be able to pay the bills doing what he loves most. But he’s not there yet. He’ll have to keep making macaroni salads for the public until that day comes.

When Simmons gets the news that his days may be numbered due to a dangerously far-gone case of leukemia, he finds himself in the throws of somber self-reflection. This puts him on the path of getting connected with Ira and Ira’s fellow roommates/comedians. But the drama didn’t start there. It started before. The life of a stand-up comedian is hard. To get ahead, you often have to work for free and then wait for opportunities for advancement that actually pay. The up-and-comers hate that.

Simmons is somewhere else in life. He’s been there and done that. He’s paid his dues, but something’s missing. He’s not happy (for other reasons than leukemia), and yet he’s front-page news, which is where those champing at the bit to get in his shoes want to be. Everyone is at a different place in life. Good movies highlight that fact.

A good comedian draws the interest of the audience by telling the truth, by always showcasing those odd connections that shape life experiences. These connections the rest of us see, but we take them for granted. Comedians call attention to them. That’s why we laugh, and that’s how Funny People draws you in. Waiting for the punch-line, that’s why you watch and listen. You are waiting for it to connect with you. The waiting keeps things interesting.

But when the expected punch-line never arrives, then what do you do? You lose interest or you keep waiting (perhaps a little of both). And sometimes, it becomes easier to accept that, like a deadbeat mother, the punch-line just ain’t gonna come back! And it doesn’t.

So you watch; you watch as one man loses his way and another finds it, while one begins to take off and another who has already taken off climbs higher still. You watch as one man’s life spirals out of control while another man finds himself in a position to help him.

Funny People does go somewhere, though sometimes you frown in puzzlement for not knowing just where. Brilliantly written, it all means something—every detail of the film. At the beginning, you are watching a young would-be standup comedian make senseless prank phone calls for his amusement. Then, later, you are watching a comedian tell jokes that do nothing but preface the arrival of a new (and hopefully funnier) scene. At another moment, you are watching Simmons defend himself because he likes to “go down” on a certain off-limits female. At other times, the weirdness gets to you. You don’t know why you keep watching. It’s just the anticipation of that punch-line, that darn punch-line!

(JH)

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Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: R
Director: Judd Apatow
Summation: When seasoned comedian George Simmons learns of his terminal, inoperable condition, his desire to form a genuine friendship causes him to take a relatively green performer under his wing as his opening act.
Starring: Adam Sandler “George Simmons,” Seth Rogen “Ira Wright,” Leslie Mann “Laura,” Eric Bana “Clarke,” Jonah Hill “Leo Koenig,” Jason Schwartzman “Mark Taylor Jackson,” Aubrey Plaza “Daisy,” Maude Apatow “Mable,” Iris Apatow “Ingrid”
Genre: Comedy / Drama

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