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Funny People

Apatow Becomes a Filmmaker

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

If you don’t know who Judd Apatow is by now, you must be living under a rock. And yet while his name has become synonymous with a rejuvenation of quality comedic movies, he has actually only directed two films prior to Funny People. Of course those were the wildly successful The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. He’s also been attached to many other projects for years as producer or writer (including two cult TV shows), but that’s really beside the point here. All anyone wants to know about is how this new film stands up to his previous successes. Well, it’s not only “funnier” but Judd Apatow is also no longer just a director or writer or producer. He’s officially a filmmaker.

It’s well known that Judd Apatow grew up idolizing stand-ups like Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld, but his films also illustrate a deep affinity for the works of Hal Ashby and James L. Brooks. It’s always been his intention to fuse the two into some hybrid of dirty comedy with honest, dramatic overtones, and while he’s done that with his previous work, the stories have always run on a fairly predictable route. With Funny People Apatow has shown us that he’s a true filmmaker in every sense of the word.

He’s a great storyteller, maybe predictable, but he can still weave together a dramatic and heartwarming story. He’s also a very capable director, putting those stories together into a pleasing visual form and his penchant for improvisation always pays off. However, like cult filmmaker Kevin Smith (who made a similar foray into the dramedy category) he’s never quite had a style like hero Ashby. But with Funny People he not only creates his best (and most unpredictable) story but he also proves that he does more than just point and shoot.

Similar praise must also be laid on Adam Sandler for giving his best acting performance since Punch Drunk Love. Many may note the irony of Sandler’s character as a bloated movie star who, despite financial success, peaked artistically long ago. Well, the real irony may be that while that’s definitely true in Sandler’s case, this film decidedly breaks his losing streak -- in a big way. Sandler reminds us of why he blew up in the first place and proved that he still has the chops he had in Punch Drunk Love.

This is most definitely Apatow’s most personal film, especially with the casting of long time friend Sandler (including video of the two making prank calls pre-fame), the subject material (stand-up and filmmaking) and the central relation (the mentor and the mentee). It's only appropriate that real life Apatow mentee, Seth Rogen, plays Sandler's. A slimmer but still goofy Rogen plays stand-up hopeful Ira to Sandler’s successful George Simmons. Rogen also puts on a great performance, and while maybe not as noteworthy as Sandler’s, only strongholds his already tight grip on Hollywood’s comedy crown.

When George enlists Ira to write jokes for a gig, following seeing his stand-up, the two begin a friendship. Then George tells Ira that he’s dying of a rare blood disorder, and no one else knows. Yet, just as George is just beginning to question and rectify his life, he learns that he’s received a second pass. Determined to correct his course, he sets out to win back the love of his life (the always memorable and Apatow's real life wife Leslie Mann). Unfortunately she’s married to and has kids with big, bad Australian Clarke (Eric Bana at his most hysterical). But Ira is just trying to get close to his idol and to get his career started.

The rest of the cast features mainly new actors not in the usual Apatow group, save Jonah Hill as Rogen’s roommate. Jason Schwartzman plays their third roommate as the successful star of a terrible network sitcom. Both provide great nuances (both comedic and dramatic) to the film and Schwartzman, favorably, brings his flair of Wes Anderson-type humor to the table. One of the many reasons why this film works so well is due to the casting. While some are predictable (Mann, Rogen and Hill) they are better than ever and the new faces (Sandler, Schwartzman, Bana) bring freshness to the atmosphere. If this is what Apatow graduated to after Knocked Up, it’s exciting to imagine where he’ll go from here.