Funny People: Just how funny?

By Dan Cohen

I’ll conclude my comments on the indie scene shortly, but right now I want to talk about a movie you might have dismissed, but may be worthy of your attention.

Why are we surprised when popular comedians alter their personae in middle age?  Do we feel betrayed by clowns who show their darker sides?  Everybody from Chaplin to Robin Williams has tried it, with few succeeding. The record shows that comedians often need to take on a series of dramatic roles before their fan base will accept them.

Woody Allen, who has been defying audience expectations for 30 years, had the last and best word on his mixed reception as a dramatist in “Stardust Memories.”  Chancing upon aliens in a remote forest, he asks them what he can best do to ameliorate human suffering. They advise him to “tell funnier jokes.”  But at that point Allen had already made a successful transition from joke writer to respected film artist.  The Oscars and grosses from “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” earned him the space to stretch, which his audience generally supported.

Jerry Lewis wasn’t as lucky. After a hugely successful multi media career he wrote and directed a tragic drama about a clown in a concentration camp. The movie has yet to see the light of day, probably for good reason.  Lewis did, however, deliver powerful “straight” performances in other people’s TV and film work, most notably Scorcese’s scalding “King of Comedy,” which never found the larger audience it deserved.  (Still another DVD to seek out!)

Lewis  played the eternal 11 year old for decades. How much beyond 50 could he continue mimicking an obsessing pre adolescent without descending into the grotesque?  So it should come as no surprise to find Adam Sandler, at 43, probably the Jerry Lewis of his time, reinventing himself in writer/director Judd Apatow’s ambitious “Funny People.”

Sandler plays George Simmons, a world famous comic/ movie star, (his mirror image,) who wakes up one day with a fatal disease. Single, alone, and lacking the brio to write a new act, he hires a struggling young comic to assist him and goose his waning sense of humor. Also, though it’s understated, to transition him to an endgame.

As they spend more time together—you can hardly call what they have a relationship—you see why the guy is alone.  Simmons says it all when he tells Ira, (ably played by Seth Rogen,) “I don’t have any friends.  You’re my closest friend, and I don’t even like you.”  And he isn’t kidding. With a steady gaze and acid humor the script lays bare his privileged, indulgent life like a dissection in a bio lab. And yet we care about this guy; a triumph for Sandler, who proves himself effortlessly comfortable in his own unadorned skin.

The movie spends a lot of time in the peculiarly combative world of stand up comics.  It’s merciless in showing both male and female of this sub species casually bombing each others egos with relentless insults. Their dialogue is vulgar, dead on accurate, and frequently very funny. Sandler has had the unmitigated nerve to appear side by side with a slew of comics 20 years his junior, and more; the generosity to give them ample time to make their own impressions, which actually makes him and the movie better.

In “The Hangover,” perhaps the summer’s biggest comedy, the R rated jokes relentlessly pound your funny bone. But the story, (three guys wake up from a bout of drugs and alcohol with no recollection of what happened the previous night,) and its attendant humor, carry little weight. The same kind of sex centered humor in Apatows’ script, which has a much closer proximity to the real world. The material has an agenda that goes beyond keeping us busy.  In other words, it’s a movie for adults.

Janusz Kaminsky, who usually works with Spielberg, has lovingly lit and shot the film, adding warmth and texture that anchors place to character. Once again, a clear eye guides us toward the level of truth the script is after.

As a complete work however, “Funny People,” is troubled. At nearly 2 and ½ hours, length is partly to blame. Simmons’ reunion with a former lover, while richly concieved, goes on longer than necessary.  The sequence, coming late in the film, is especially damaging because it slackens the pace just when it needed to move faster.  And while the material is way more daring than the seasons other serious comedy, “500 Days of Summer,” it doesn’t go down as easily.  And finally, the show biz centered setting isn’t for everybody.

Flaws and all, I found “Funny People” engaging, compelling and memorable.

In the interest of “full disclosure,” I spent several years doing stand up comedy and worked the New York Improv more than a few times.  Also, my uncle, George Coe, a character actor of many years, plays a small role in “Funny People,” as Simmons dad.

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