Funny People is a funny movie. But it’s also serious. It mixes genre in a way that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, and this will frustrate many viewers. It’s also a Judd Apatow film, which means there are about fifty too many penis jokes, lots of bromance comedy shenanigans, and touches of emotional depth and “growing up” insights. As part of the Apatow canon, it fits nicely in with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, rounding out the trilogy (if you want to call it a trilogy) with an appropriate graduation to existential self-awareness.
This is one of those self-reflexive films by Hollywood people about Hollywood people. In this case, it’s a film about comedians made by comedians (and chock full of them: everyone from Sarah Silverman to Andy Dick to “everyone loves” Ray Romano). It’s an “inside the life of a comedian in L.A.” type movie, and for me this was its most interesting aspect. Some people don’t like these sorts of films, but I do. I live in L.A. and it all rings very true.
Adam Sandler plays a version of himself—an aging comic superstar who was a huge star in the 90s but has been reduced to making Eddie-Murphy style sophomoric films about talking babies. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Jason Schwartzman play aspiring young comedians/actors who share an apartment in the Larchmont Village section of Los Angeles. They are the up-and-comers waiting for their big break. Sandler is the established star who lost his knack for fresh stand-up jokes. He needs the young guys to revive his career. The young guys grew up on Sandler, worship him, and need an “in” to the industry. Let the bromance begin.
This dynamic is a common one in L.A. Everyone is in a curiously symbiotic relationship with everyone else, and the whole town’s web of relationships is one big boiling stew of admiration, fear, fame, mistrust, aspiration, love, loathing, and lunch meetings. This is the thing Funny People gets most right: the complex relational tenor of “industry” circles in L.A.
Sandler’s relationship with Rogen is the biggest and best example of this. Sandler is a stereotypical rich industry powerhouse: Huge house, few friends, lots of meaningless sex. Rogen is a stereotypical aspirant: awkward, desperate, pathetically anonymous, and not yet completely corrupted by the two faces of fame. When Rogen becomes Sandler’s assistant, he quickly becomes his best friend. But the power disparity rears its ugly head often, as Sandler can’t help but remind Rogen that he is a paid employee, hired help, in no position to do anything but fetch Diet Cokes, schedule doctor appointments and call the cable repairman if need be.
The film captures the celebrity/assistant relationship in Hollywood well. So often the dynamic produces an intimate bond where the celebrity feels closer to his or her assistant than just about anyone (hey, it’s a lonely and trustless town). But it’s still a slave/master relationship, and both parties know it. It’s weird to be close to someone who you know is using you and who you are using. But unfortunately this is the case with a huge percentage of relationships in Hollywood. In a place where everyone is desperately vying for a limited pool of buzzworthy notoriety, selfless, loving relationships are naturally going to be hard to come by.
You see this all over Funny People. As comedians make small talk backstage at a show, they’re full of transparently phony words of commendation. Onstage, they’re constantly sabotaging each other or pilfering each other’s jokes. Even those that are friends (as in the Rogen/Hill/Schwartzman roommate trio) are unable to hide their inherent competition and jealousy when one gets a break on a TV show or becomes Adam Sandler’s assistant. Of course, all of this is very passive-aggressive and mostly just an unspoken undercurrent in what might otherwise appear to be healthy, bonding friendliness.
Perhaps Apatow’s latest revelation about male bonding (and this IS a film mostly about male bonding… as much as Leslie Mann’s presence in the third act indicates otherwise) is that competition and power-struggle are not only unavoidable but likely essential aspects of any friendship between men. We’re prideful creatures and we need to exhibit our accomplishments to one another (while avoiding vulnerability and weakness wherever possible) in ways that playfully intermingle friendship with territorial warfare. Whether this means sleeping with the new neighbor girl before our best friend can (as Jason Schwartzman does in the film) or simply using up good jokes before our fellow comedian (who we wrote the jokes for) can, there’s always a subtle impulse toward self-aggrandizing in the midst of even the most intimate of male relationships.
Funny People is a little less funny and a little more cynical than Apatow’s first two films (as director), but it is perhaps the most insightful and interesting. Few filmmakers are making films about maleness anymore, and so even if he gets carried away with phallic humor and perhaps presents masculinity in too victimized a light, Apatow is to be praised for at least being willing to go there and get the conversation going.