September Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 15 years ago

Judd Apatow has done the seemingly impossible: he has made a movie that is not only filled to the rafters with penis jokes but is also the most poignant film of the year. Those who are familiar with Apatow’s previous works, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad, would not be surprised that Funny People, his latest and most ambitious movie, is packed with scatological humour. What does come as a shock is the maturity of the characters, the presence of genuine emotion and the grim tone.

Adam Sandler, who used to lodge with Apatow back when they were starting out in showbusiness, stars as a stand-up comedian who has hit it big in a series of juvenile comedies like “My Best Friend is a Robot.” Sandler’s mansion is huge, with a parade of groupies, hangers-on and domestic help flitting in and out, but his soul is empty. Told by the doctors that he should get his affairs in order as he only has a few weeks left to live, Sandler realises that he has no true friends and that he has sold-out for fame and fortune.

Apatow-regular Seth Rogen provides the flip side to Sandler’s comedic hackery. A struggling stand-up comedian who refuses to compromise his craft to attain mainstream success, Rogen attracts the attention of Sandler. Rogen, Sandler feels, is the comedian he used to be and employs him to write jokes and run errands for him.

The direction of a less mature Apatow film would have been very predictable at this point. Rogen, with his heart of gold, would have convinced Sandler to return to his stand-up roots, the cancer would have mysteriously gone into remission and every conflict would be neatly resolved.

But, particularly in the second half of the movie, Apatow is less interested in laughs and happy endings. While there is a certain ambiguity to the film, it soon becomes clear that Rogen is far more likely to follow Sandler’s path than vice versa.

Much of the humour — and the vital dick jokes — are found in a series of subplots that seem messy and uncalled for. It is only with a second viewing that you realise what Apatow is aiming for with these rambling stories, including one where Leslie Mann plays a married woman who used to be romantically involved with Sandler. Apatow has attempted — successfully — to make an epic comedy about comedians. Instead of limiting himself to one tightly-focused storyline, Apatow has shown us the entire life of comedians, from their struggling roots, their difficult relationships with women and other comedians to their success and inevitable alienation from the culture that defined and moulded them.

There are no heroes and villains in Funny People. There are no happy endings and intractable problems can’t be wished away with a clever one-liner. What we have is a mature movie with characters who deal with moral dilemnas in a confused and unsure manner. It may not be the Judd Apatow movie we expected, but it is the best one he will ever make.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.