Dying is easy, comedy is hard — perhaps that’s why so little of each is combined in most movies. They don’t play nice together very often. Even so, hope springs eternal and a new film asks us to laugh and cry, “Funny People.” The film comes from writer/director/producer Judd Apatow who is on a prolific and creative roll. His comedic finger prints turn up on many of the funniest movies this century: “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Superbad,” “Walk Hard,” and “Anchorman.” Some are funnier than others but you get the point. Every one delivers a full measure of uneasy comedy and smaller doses of human foibles. The recipe places flawed humans in raunchy, hilarious situations with the comedy always front and center. This approach made Judd Apatow a major force. This time out, “Funny People” consciously mixes the elements in different proportions. A medical emergency forces professional funnyman George Simmons (Adam Sandler) to test drive a little humanity as he reevaluates a very self-absorbed life. His joke writing assistant Ira (Seth Rogan) is reluctantly booked for the whole ride.
Similar elements hit the screen in 1988 with bravura performances by Tom Hanks and Sally Field in “Punchline.” Both movies examine comedy as serious business and as a vehicle for personal redemption. The reviews for “Punchline” were mixed and it did modest box office ($21 million). The stakes are much higher for Funny People. Does Judd Apatow’s comedic reach fall short?
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Something really icky turns up on George Simmons’ medical tests. He faces experimental medical treatment and “Funny People” becomes George’s quest to make amends for the betrayals and selfishness that defined his life. George can’t do anything for himself and he makes the acquaintance of Comic in Training Ira, who will arrange George’s personal affairs and donate his possessions to charity. Along the way George displays a lot more narcissism than humor. He reconnects with long departed girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann) and tries to break up her marriage. George extracts a price for every kindness he tries to extend. He really doesn’t know better. That doesn’t change even after learning his blood condition won’t kill him, after all. Apatow directed his script with the full complement of character actors we know as the Apatow Repertory Players: Rogan, Jonah Hill, his wife Leslie Mann — even his two daughters.
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The Defending Champion
Writer / Director David Seltzer offers a different frame of reference in “Punchline,” but real parallels exist with Tom Hanks as the morose comic Steven Gold and Sally Field as would be comedienne Lilah Krytsick. She’s a New Jersey mother of three trying to balance life with her insurance salesman husband (John Goodman) and her dream of performing stand up comedy. Gold has no life beyond the comedy club after washing out of med school. Matters come to a head in a comedy smackdown with the winner getting a shot on the Tonight Show. One of them is transformed; the other, not a chance.
Both make you laugh, and one lets you feel better about it. “Funny People” connects aspects of Judd Apatow’s life with his one time roommate, Sandler. For his part, Sandler gives another of his hybrid performances, not exactly funny or convincingly serious. Rogan and Hill play roles just like the ones performed in their recent movies. They offer no surprises. Leslie Mann is affecting as the old flame who is uncertain — for a time — about what she wants. The film showcases nice cameos of working comics, real Funny People: Paul Reiser, Charlie Fleischer, Sarah Silverman, Norm MacDonald, George Wallace (he even appeared in Punchline). There are some great moments with James Taylor, and inside the office of George’s Swedish doctor. At 146 minutes, I won’t be the first person to suggest “Funny People” may be a half-hour too long. There’s also the humor: After awhile I wasn’t laughing so much at the sex jokes. As for Sandler’s character, there’s no personal growth. He remains the same schmuck throughout.
By contrast, “Punchline” had more going on in front of the camera. Hanks and Field are much better actors and their achievement is special because both were schooled to perform stand up comedy. They delivered, and both had special individual moments: Hanks in his med school meltdown, Fields prepping dinner, her kids and changing clothes to the strains of Khachaturian’s Saber Dance. John Goodman was reliably sturdy as Lilah’s husband.
Hanks’ character makes no personal breakthrough even after learning the world doesn’t revolve him. Lilah leaves the comedy showdown knowing her future is within her grasp. The movie affirms her conventional choices of family and home. They work for her.
One of these films wrings more mileage from going on stage for insights for living off stage.
I’ll be blunt. I believe “Funny People” creatively misfired. I enjoy Judd Apatow’s body of work, how he infuses a measure of personal decency within his characters and their comedic predicaments. But not this time. He rejiggered the formula to an annoying outcome. A few members of the Apatow Repertory Players need to be recycled out if they cannot produce something new. Their character approaches are not so special I need to see them again and again.
I must be showing my age: The heavily freighted potty humor left me wishing — time after time — the material showed more heart. I think that’s what Judd Apatow aimed for, but missed.
Some viewers will think “Punchline” lacks the edgy patina affected by “Funny People.” Attitude won’t substitute for structure, distinct characters and in the case of a comedy, honest humor.
“Punchline” is the satisfying movie here. I know Judd Apatow will do better.