Any old stand-up will tell you, to be a truly successful comic, first you have to fail. A lot. Like, five nights a week. It's only through consistently bombing that a comic is able to lose her ego and begin to truly open up on stage, exposing the humanity that is at the root of all humor. That adage is what Funny People, Judd Apatow's third film as writer/director, is all about: doing stand up, confronting failure, examining yourself, and discovering the depth of that humanity.
Apatow took that lesson, from his early stand-up days, and applied it to a career in the Hollywood system. For more than a decade, Apatow wrote and produced forgotten flops like Celtic Pride and The Cable Guy, before helming the critically acclaimed but utterly unsuccessful series Freaks and Geeks. While Freaks and Geeks is arguably one of the best TV shows of its generation, it's easy to see why it was pulled off the air. It was far too cerebral, raw, and heartfelt to connect with a prime-time audience looking for hour-long crime dramas and banal sitcom zingers. The show was too real, too awkward, to connect with mainstream America.
In the past few years, Apatow has begun to get comfortable in film the same way a truly great comic hits his stride on stage. He's taken the honesty and realism that drew in Freaks and Geeks' cultish fan base and tempered it into more accessible, yet still genuine and hilarious, commercial comedies. His hit (Superbad) or miss (Drillbit Taylor) brand aside, Apatow's personal films, the ones he writes and directs himself, have captured a unique comic style. In the hands of another director, both Knocked Up and the The 40 Year Old Virgin could have ended up as forgettable fart comedies, but Apatow brought dimension to even the most peripheral roles and created two rare comedies that allow us to laugh at, and feel for, their characters.
In Funny People, Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright, an amateur comic who is clinging desperately to the promise that through failure he will eventually find his funny. His roommates are moving on to better projects and bigger paychecks, much like Apatow's real-life roommate Adam Sandler was in the early '90s, while Wright is still struggling to develop his comedy. Luck and circumstance allow him to come under the wing of George Simmons, a rich, successful movie star (played semi-autobiographically by Sandler), who has just been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. Now that the end is imminent, Simmons is taking a look at his life and realizing he isn't a very happy person and hasn't been one for a while. Not since he split with his one true love, Laura.
In a hackier, less well-executed film (see almost anything else Sandler has done), Simmons' search for fulfillment would be found in whatever generic, interchangeable female actress they picked to play Laura. A two-dimensional Laura would return to Simmons (despite logical reasons not to), cure his disease, and allow him to not only live, but do so happily ever after. Luckily, Laura is played by Apatow's wife Leslie Mann, who creates a multi-faceted woman facing a difficult decision rife with conflicting emotions. She and Simmons still feel for each other, but getting back together isn't as easy as that. Life gets in the way. Laura's Australian hunk husband (Eric Bana, who in real life is not only Australian and a hunk, but also a former stand-up) isn't a mindless cretin jerk; he's a nice enough guy with a few issues of his own. He's a real person.
Funny People is clearly Apatow's most mature film to date, and it delivers, literally, what its title promises. Rogen's amateur comic; Sandler's bitter, sarcastic celebrity; and even Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), Wright's awkward neighbor/love interest, all come off as credible human beings who, fortunately, also happen to be hysterically funny. Rather than let the film's maturity devolve into soapy melodrama, Apatow makes a realistic examination of immature characters confronting genuine problems. Half of the characters make dick jokes for a living, so it's only natural that their banter is rife with one liners about boner size and ball sucking. The moments where Wright and his two actor/comic roommates Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman talk shit to each other come closest to the raunchy, "guy talk" comedy of Apatow's previous films. But unlike Knocked Up, where the humor was unevenly split between Rogen and Heigl's romantic comedy and Rogen's roommates' non-stop stoner-boner put-downs, Funny People's humor penetrates even the most serious moments of the film, giving them the awkward edge that often characterizes life's tragedies. After all, it's funny when someone gets kicked in the nuts, but it's more relatable when it's Life that's doing the kicking.