“It’s hard to make a comedy that’s really more a drama,” says Judd Apatow on the quality four-part Funny People Diaries. “I don’t know if I can do it.”
This 75 minute-long Making Of doc is about as fascinating a document of filmmaking as you’ll ever watch. It’s worth buying the DVD for even if you found the film a smug, self-satisfied cringing wallow in celebrity woe. It’s that good. So let’s keep talking about it.
Split into ‘The Premise’, ‘The Set-Up’, ‘The Punchline’ and ‘The Button’, Diaries leaves no part of the process unscrutinised. First up there’s footage of stars Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill practicing their stand-up ahead of shooting, road-testing gags and making audience members gasp “Oh my God!!!” when they realise they’re in front of the first stand-up Sandler’s done for 12 years. In a venue the size of a shed.
Consistently funny and raw – Hill’s joke about wondering if one can “fuck your dad” while playing Grand Theft Auto being a particular highlight – the doc is a nostalgic and affectionate look at the life Apatow has led and which spills near-verbatim into Funny People.
As for the film… Oh, hang on. There’s more from Funny People Diaries. There are clips of ideas tried out during post-production that didn’t work but actually would have been really good, Paul Thomas Anderson turning up to the first screening (“It’s helpful to have him around because if I do anything hacky I’ll be so ashamed,” says Apatow), more stand-up and then some lovely on-set snaps.
It’s completely wonderful and far better than the Rogen, Hill and Apatow commentary. That’s fine, but Rogen has an annoying, throaty laugh that makes it all rather trying for the 156 minutes.
So, the film… Like Lost In Translation before it, many were put off by Funny People’s focus on the misery of the mega-rich as George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is diagnosed with a terminal illness, gets surprisingly cured and then tries to deal with what he may have learnt from near-death.
Along the way, he enlists struggling comedian Ira (Seth Rogen) to write gags and talk him to sleep, reconnects with his ex Laura (Leslie Mann) and takes the piss out of a German doctor he mistakes for a Die Hard villain.
The proof of public disinterest is in the box office as, while Apatow’s previous directorial effort Knocked Uped $149m in the US this – his third film – made only $52m. Maybe it’s the recession. Maybe people struggling with their cash don’t want to see fancy folk lolling around in limos and mansions, but it’s a spurious argument.
Just because Simmons is rich, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get ill and a warts’n’all take on illness affecting the famous is surely perfect for an age when the public’s appetite for celebrity can’t be sated.
On the Funny People Diaries (have we mentioned them yet?), Hollywood types call the movie “real stuff” after a test screening and while that will fuel the claim that this is a film made in a bubble for a bubble and never leaving the bubble, burst such misconceptions and Apatow’s grown-up drama is rich with real emotions and follies such as betrayal, failure, regrets and life tossed aside in favour of professional ambition and a cheap shag with a pretty stranger at midnight.
It’s tears of a clown stuff, sure, but by setting tragedy within a funny world – and all the in-film stand-up is hilarious, if a little cock-heavy – the juxtaposition highlights the core issues.
Witness the film’s stand-out montage of George having blood tests, being sick, taking medicine set to him singing a skit with lyrics: “I’m one funny man. I bring the comedy… Fuck George Simmons. He has a mediumsized penis”. It’s dark and troubling, funny and sad and evidence of why Sandler should be Oscar-nominated.
Like all Apatow films though, Funny People outstays its welcome, becoming a victim of its own ambition as George and Ira travel to Laura’s house and Eric Bana’s Aussie caricature succeeds in doing very little apart from stretching patience, with Apatow swapping focus for flab and at least 20 minutes where nobody’s really sure where anything is headed.
Also, the filmmakers risk accusations of snideness when they take the piss out of the canned-laughter sitcoms and cashcow Hollywood comedies many of their brethren use to put meals on their plates.
It’s a shame, but such follies only add to the sense that the director knew he was making his epic, that he wouldn’t get a second chance to thank his profession and that he therefore had to cover everything. And from the footsoldiers in LA clubs right up to the Dons who’ve made it and now rot in the films Sandler’s been kerchinging for years, Funny People does for comedians what The Godfather did for gangsters. With more cocks.
So yes, it’s hard to make a comedy that’s really more a drama, but Apatow’s done it.
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