Genitals take center stage in Judd Apatow’s Funny People-—not so much visually as thematically, conversationally and professionally. As they might in any standard stand-up routine, these comedians talk about and joke about their genitals incessantly (Sarah Silverman even simulates her lips with her lips—who’s surprised?). And not only that, they use their genitals frequently—who’s schtupping who means something to the plot.
Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, playing a version of himself as he might be if insufferability had precluded his current marriage and children. He is rich, successful, and headlining those dumb, high-concept comedian vehicles (Martin Lawrence in a fat suit!) regularly panned by critics and adored by audiences. A prickly misanthrope—read selfish jerk—who lives alone in an epic Los Angeles Mansion worthy of Charles Foster Kane or Daniel Plainview, he learns in the opening act that he has terminal cancer. But rather than taking a heartwarming turn of selflessness and self-discovery, the character instead acts terrible to himself and to others for the better part of the film, coasting along on his fame and bloated checking account.
His first act—which will form the film’s central relationship—is to hire Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an aspiring comedian who has just scored big with a comedy club audience after following (and mocking) Simmons’s depressed ramblings about subjects as funny as the absence of God in the Holocaust. Ira’s job is to write jokes for Simmons as well as help entertain his sexual prospects and talk him to sleep at night. Paid to be the sick comic’s friend, Ira has the thankless task of witnessing the man’s relentless self-destruction and receiving only angry backlash when he tries to say anything sensible. His character has echoes of Steve Carrell’s eponymous virgin from Apatow’s first feature—surrounded by aggressive and heartless male sexuality that gets many women in bed, he is nice and uncertain around females and therefore sleeps alone most nights.
The latter half of the film revolves around Simmons’s attempt to undo the mistakes he made with his old flame (Leslie Mann), who is married with kids. Apatow here shows some of that “family values” stock recognized by many in his previous two films (Steve Carrell lost his virginity in the marriage bed, Rogen & Heigl kept the baby and raised it); in an earlier decade, something melodramatically wrong with the marriage would have probably tried to sell the idea of justified (and deserved) adultery for the protagonists. That’s not to say that the succeeding events are puritanical and wholesome, but rather that the film avoids the sappy narcissisms of Boomer generation cinema. As in any good melodrama, though, the course of the affair and the illness are closely intertwined.
I did not enjoy watching this movie, but I was still thinking about it the next day. The film ends not with dramatic uplift and swooning orchestral crescendo, but a small and weak gesture of friendship that represents a large step forward on the part of Sandler’s character. It is not a deeply satisfying ending, but it rings true to the intractable tendency human beings have to remain fixed in their brokenness. It did not make me feel good, but I found myself quietly appreciating that the film would immerse us in someone’s brokenness for that long if only to show the hard-fought nature of genuine change for the better.
Visually, the film is boring. Apatow’s compositions are not artful, but practical and sometimes slipshod. I’m not sure of the precise relationship between a director and his cinematagropher, but considering that Janusz Kaminski photographed virtually all of Spielberg’s films after Schindler’s List, I’ll assume it’s Apatow who owes the mea culpa. And one doesn’t generally expect visual creativity and art from a comedy (unless it was made by the Coens), but Funny People is not a comedy. It is an uneven and dark drama about people who work in comedy. It is the anti-Patch Adams, for in it laughter is anything but medicine. It is crass and excessively vulgar. I was reminded of the one and only time I went to a stand-up comedy club. Both routines we saw revolved entirely around the subject of genitals and several creative and non-creative situations they might find themselves in. This lent the film authenticity while begging the same question I had after leaving the club that night—why did I just spend two and a half hours listening to someone else talk about their genitals?