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Funny people are funny people

Funny you should say that...

Funny you should say that...

Funny People – Judd Apatow

Funny people are funny people: ha ha and peculiar respectively – like “war is war”, this is no tautology. Not even the ‘great artists must starve in a garret’ myth has more universal currency than the received wisdom in the public mind that ‘comics are depressives’, and ‘making people laugh is a serious business’.

Real life concurs: Bruce, Lewis, Hancock, Cleese et al – you can make your own list: living or dead. Scorcese’s interesting The King of Comedy (1982) and Egoyan’s pretty awful Where The Truth Lies (2005) are just two of many movies that perpetuate this view; showing us the dark places from which often, the light of humour must escape.

Apatow’s often funny, always interesting film offers a more nuanced view. Sandler’s George Simmons, household-name comic has become so famous that his life is reduced to the treadmill of signing autographs, posing-with-punter pictures and serially bedding female fans with exactly the same detached, ‘price-of-fame’ resignation. ‘Ho hum – you go ahead honey I’ll pop in for the night of your life when I’ve finished the sports section. Start without me if you like.’ Kinda thing.

When his doctor tells him that he has a terminal form of leukaemia George has no independent emotional resources with which to respond so takes the fact and circumstance of his imminent demise, as with everything in the life of a comic – as source material for gags and ironic self-mockery. He returns to his ‘stand-up’ roots and on the circuit bumps into wannabee comics, nerdy Ira Wright (Seth Rogan) and super-nerd Leo (Jonah Hill) both of whom, unable to make money out of comedy are freeloading at Jason’s place (Mark Taylor Jackson) who has his own TV sitcom and seems to make money and women with a supercilious, complacent ease that drives them both nuts. Floating around the edges of this threesome is Daisy (Aubrey Plaza): deadpan, semi-detached would-be comic. Ira fancies Daisy and with the generosity of what he calls friendship, Jason gives Ira 10 days grace before, as he must, Jason notches her up on his own gun. Sad to say, I must report that the women in Apatow’s movie do appear to be pretty dumb. That said, Apatow and partner Leslie Mann’s off-screen kids Ingrid and Maude, here the daughter’s of George’s old flame Laura, are both bright as buttons and perceptive as hell in the way only smart pre-pubescent girls can be. (I didn’t say ‘precocious’ – that would be a tautology).

George takes to Ira and asks him first to write material for him and then to move in as his PA/Gopher. The relationship that develops between Ira and George lies at the heart of the movie. George has everything Ira wants: fame, money, reputation, assurance and success with any woman he wants. George wants company and someone to mock as well as help. Having no real friends, he just puts one on the payroll. Despite the total asymmetry of this relationship, their unlikely friendship revolves around an equally shared urge to write gags: life not as experience but as the source of funny material. George doesn’t want fully-fledged jokes from Ira, just a flow of ideas, situations with comic potential he can easily turn into laughs with his professional know-how.

Not going public with his illness, George does tell Laura (Leslie Mann) now married with the two aforementioned kids Mabel and Ingrid. Old torch in hand, Laura visits George to get re-lit; and he obliges. George’s new-found sense of mortality persuades him that he has always loved Laura and he decides to follow this up, so Ira in tow for immoral support, they head up to Laura’s place while husband Clarke (Eric Bana) is away. Before leaving George answers a call to the hospital where lanky Swedish Specialist Dr Lars tells him that the experimental medication they put him on has cured him.

George’s reaction is almost exactly the same as before – unemotional and detached: you can almost hear the cogs turning: “now how can I turn this in to material?” With a bemused Ira watching, George and Laura get together at her place and start making plans to be together until Clarke comes home unexpectedly. Bana, saddled with a gor-blimey Australian accent (please tell me it’s not real- you can never tell with Australians) to make even Shane Warne cringe, is truly awful and almost buries the film on the spot (as he does with The Time Traveller’s Wife) though to be fair Apatow gives him some real dross to speak.

This all unwinds as Apatow has led us to expect it might; and the ending captures the sense of the one stable element in the comic’s life: experience as source material for laughing at life not living it.

Apatow seems to have Sandler playing George, being Sandler as he might well be in ‘real’ life. There is much here about celebrity with Ira too much of a nice guy to attain it; and even if he did, being too nice to exploit its perks in the way that comes naturally for George. George is written especially well and Sandler’s performance is subtly judged.

Apatow manages to convey that sense of a celebrity talking in phrases, too bored to create a whole sentence, still less an argument: because they never have to. Surrounded by people paid to satisfy their every need and reinforce their own self-image, celebrities never really have to justify, explain, argue: they just say – and it gets done. George’s discovery of the limits to this form of relationship when he thinks he is dying is interestingly developed.

The tone of Funny People is all over the place – from broad Sandler-type farce to subtle, wry, ironic observation. It is hilarious when Laura, as an ex-actress is presented with the need to pretend to Clarke, i.e. act as if nothing has happened with George, she can only do so by grotesquely over-acting, thus making obvious the very thing her acting skill was supposed to hide.

Some of the crudity of the language and humour seems gratuitous without being funny – the only measure of taste that matters. But this is an interesting, often very funny film that does more than it says on the tin – which for me with Adam Sandler is no bad thing. Oddly absorbing.

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