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Funny People is a Hollywood movie about how nice, basically, Hollywood people are. This means that the film is almost unavoidably incoherent. Movies about how truly awful Hollywood is have their work cut out for them, and there's nothing to worry about but the stitching. Movies like Funny People, though, have to do their own cutting as well. It has something to do with the difficulty of proving a negative. What would Hollywood be like without all that well-known sham and vileness?
Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is a nice guy — almost an angel — especially considering that he has ambitions in the stand-up comedy line. His name, which used to be "Wiener," really suits him: he believes in doing the right thing, and he usually does it. Not always, though. When the institutionally famous comedian George Simmons (played by the institutionally famous comedian Adam Sandler) asks Ira to write some jokes for him, he doesn't mean just Ira, but also Ira's roommate, Leo (Jonah Hill). Ira forgets the second part of the request. In a more sharply dramatic movie, this dereliction would come back at a climactic moment to blight Ira's rosy future, but Funny People is more interested in what life is really like. In the film, as in life, Leo has a fit when he hears that Ira cut him out, but George is unfazed. George does not respond as though Ira were suddenly revealed to be a morally defective worm, unworthy of employment by the likes of George Simmons. There is none of that kind of dramatically fertile hypocrisy in Funny People. Ira mumbles some excuses, and even an apology, and eventually Leo forgives him. But Leo never does write any jokes for George, though.
Ira's other roommate, Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), has snagged a starring role on a teen-oriented sit-com. We would hate Mark utterly if Mr Schwartzman did not inject his character with a few ccs of Rushmore-vintage weirdness, because Mark is the embodiment of everything that is tedious about minor celebrities. He is very conscious of (a) his good looks and (b) trying to be a nice guy notwithstanding. Mark does not have it made — he is turned down for the part of Toby McGuire's younger brother — but he is vastly more successful than his apartment-mates, as well as better looking. "Better looking" is not really the word. Leo, who is actually very funny but who also looks like the Michelin Tire man, depends on his parents' support, while Ira (who has lost quite a bit of weight lately) works the deli counter at Otto's. Ira is trying really hard to break in as a stand-up comedian, but he's not quite nervy enough for the job — not until George Simmons bumps him at the Improv, so that Ira has to follow the act of an institutionally famous comedian. Pissed off, Ira makes funny.
Not that George broke any legs with his little act. He just dropped in on an impulse — you can do that if you're a star (and we all want to see his movie Redo, in which George's adult head is attached to the body of an infant) — after learning that he is probably dying of a very unpromising form of leukemia. His doctors have put him on an experimental course of treatment, involving lots of pills from Canada and a fair amount of vomiting. After a rough encounter in the comedy club's parking lot — the movie's one unfriendly scene — George hires Ira in a sort of all-purpose capacity that both men comfortably make up as they go along. Mr Apatow is sublimely unconcerned with how the new job impacts Ira's everyday life, possibly because jobs like this do not have "an impact." Rather, they transport "employees" to a world of pre-modern vagueness, where all that anybody needs to know is that you are George Simmons's right-hand man. What you actually do for him could be anything, and probably is. In this regard (and it is not a minor aspect), Funny People is both pre- and post-bourgeois.
One consequence of the undefined, borderless quality of Ira's new life is that he is not expected to show up at own apartment on the night that Mark finally swoops down on Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), a fetchingly deadpan neighbor, making good on a threat to Ira. The threat was that Mark would give Ira ten days to stake a claim to Daisy, if you'll pardon my French; after which she would be fair game. In point of fact, Mark has given the very distracted but odd un-impacted Ira three weeks. Ira is sore and all (just like Leo!), but not for long: Mark's seduction, which in so many thousands of other movies has been regarded as an unforgivable betrayal, fails to leave a trace here. Ira and Daisy wind up together, sitting on the hood of a car and looking out over Los Angeles. If things got any more relaxed, and we wouldn't be breathing.
But we are breathing, and having a good time, too, because Mr Apatow's characters are so engaging. They're slightly edgier and more interesting versions of people whom you already know, or knew when you were in school, and you like these people for the same reason — no reason at all, really. They're nice, mostly, and funny, mostly, and the future is bright. The future is not bright for George, of course, but then he is middle-aged and doomed, so you like him precisely because you don't have to: he won't be sticking around. Like Ira, you want to make him comfortable; you can certainly understand that being at the top of your game and having "all this" (ocean-view mansion, fleet of cars) but still having to die would be a hard-to-take bummer.
And then the bummer evaporates. At some point in the middle of the movie, it is determined that George is one of the lucky 8% of patients for whom the Canadian treatment works. George is no longer dying! This changes everything, of course, including what kind of movie Funny People is. What started out as an exercise in tender restraint, steering well clear of mawkishness (poor George — but not too poor), begins to approach screwball comedy, with Eric Bana in the Ralph Bellamy role. The film's account of George's attempt to "rescue" the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann), from her unhappy marriage would be a horrible mess if we did not already love these guys as we love our friends. We even start to love Mr Bana's character! (All right; not so much.) We might not understand why Ira is so dead-set against the George-and-Laura reunion, and we may wonder just how plausible it would be to tell your boss that you were going out for a pack of cigarettes when in fact you're planning on driving from Marin County to San Francisco International Airport. But we won't mind it when the movie threatens to slide into narrative Alzheimer's, because at that exact moment, Mr Bana stands ramrod erect and declares war on George. A fight! But never mind how all that works out. Funny People is that rare movie that gets by without a genuine story.
It ought to be clear from the foregoing that the cast of Funny People does a great, super-astonishing job, but I'll say it anyway. Adam Sandler is getting very close to bringing Humphrey Bogart back to life. Leslie Mann is adorable as an embodiment of the truth that even smart and beautiful people make dumb mistakes. And if Seth Rogen doesn't watch out, he's going to follow his amazing voice right into becoming a leading man who doesn't have to tell jokes. (August 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press