Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Dark Side of Comedy

Comedy, to the outside world, is all smiles. Famous comedians seem to have it all. They get paid an enormous amount of money to travel the country, and all they have to do for work is get up on stage for a few minutes every night and try to make people laugh. The lucky ones make even more money starring in movies and TV shows, usually playing a slight variation of themselves.

Funny People (2009) is about one of the really lucky ones, the fictional actor and comedian George Simmons, played by real life famous actor and comedian Adam Sandler. Early in the film he learns he is dying from a rare form of cancer, and he beings to reflect on his life. He wanders through his massive house, watches his old movies on several flat panel TVs at once, and realizes that he is friendless and his life is devoid of any real meaning. He recruits a struggling stand-up comedian named Ira, played by the ubiquitous Seth Rogan, to help him write jokes and be his personal assistant. What he's really done is bought himself a friend in the same way he would have bought a new car or an expensive rug.

It's not long before it becomes apparent that this is not a simple laugh-out-loud comedy. What director Judd Apatow is doing here is exploring the dark side of comedy, the side the public doesn't get to see. Comedians, despite the humorous face they show to the world, often live very lonely lives and use their ability to make others laugh to cover deep seeded pain. Their only "friends" are often other actors and comedians, all fighting over the same laughs every night. This point is emphasized by the film's huge number of celebrity cameos. Like Sandler's George Simmons, comedians can become very rich and famous, and yet, due to the nature of their working lifestyle, have literally nothing of real value, like friends and family, to fill their houses.

Sandler does a good job with this aspect of the character. Through most of the film he wears a slight expression of contempt when interacting with other people, as if it's a chore he has to put up with. Ira, his new assistant, is treated more like a piece of property or a pet than a human being. Simmons is so lonely he can't fall asleep without someone there to talk to him at his bedside. But as he's dying, he begins to understand the empty shell of a person he's become and he seeks to reclaim his humanity by getting back the girl he lost long ago, now married with two children, even if it means breaking up her family.

The idea that Apatow is trying to express here is that our laughter comes at a price: the souls of comedians. Simmons, after becoming so famous for making mediocre movies, like Sandler himself, has been isolated in the center of his own world for so long that he no longer understands basic morality. When he wants something, he just gets it, no matter the cost or the damage it may cause to others.

Ira seems to represent the conscience of this film. He is riding Simmons' coat tails to fame, opening for him every night, but hasn't yet reached a point where he can't determine right from wrong. But already, even so early in his career, his friends aren't really his friends, but rather his rivals, both personally and professionally. We can see that one day, possibly, he could end up a casualty of the comedian lifestyle, just like Simmons.

Overall, Funny People mostly hits the right notes. Like all Apatow movies, it doesn't follow a conventional comedic formula, which is refreshing, but the third act does drag slightly. Despite this minor pacing flaw, it's possible it could go down as a classic in the vein of The Graduate. It's likely time will be favorable to this film because of the way it speaks to the psychological effects of fame and explores themes of isolation and mortality.

Funny People (2009) 9/10

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