Funny People

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Judd Apatow’s personal epic Funny People (2009) is a tribute to its star Adam Sandler and a reflection on the price of fame. Apatow draws inspiration from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Being There (1979), and his own experiences in the stand-up comedy and film industries to paint a portrait of a comedian’s mid-life crisis that never feels as authentic or genuine as its opening credit sequence.

The credits for Funny People are overlayed onto VHS footage shot by Apatow some twenty-five years earlier when he and Sandler were roommates. Sandler is laying on a bed making prank calls in a silly voice and cracking up everyone in the room. But all that Apatow’s camera records is the charismatic movie star to be. Apatow shows us a candid Sandler, young and hungry, who is absolutely funny just goofing around with his buddies. When the credits finish, Apatow cuts to Sandler as he is circa 2009: famous, middle aged, and playing a character based on himself.

In that cut from VHS candid footage to the staged 35mm fiction footage, Funny People says everything that it is going to reiterate and expand upon over the course of two and a half hours. An individual’s experience of the dichotomies of youth and middle aged, public and private personas, as well as those of fame and anonymity are all summed up in this one cut. It doesn’t require words of explanation; the juxtaposition of images suggests an unfathomable amount of feelings that everyone experiences and knows sooner or later. Yet, Apatow doesn’t leave this perfect cinematic statement alone.

Funny People could have just been a satire on Sandler’s persona after that affecting introduction. Apatow’s “fake” Adam Sandler movies in Funny People are its greatest comedic asset. But Apatow attempts to dramatize what was so nuanced about that cut and intersperse melodramatic episodes throughout his satire. Funny People is a film torn between these creative impulses and undone by them. Apatow’s sentimental and saccharine sensibilities are a harsh contrast to the multitude of dick jokes in the film resulting in a severe case of tonal whiplash that obscures all that was profound about the opening of the film. Funny People opens with depth and wit then delivers only the most superficial of buddy comedies.

I first saw Funny People the weekend it came out with my best friend who had just finished her rehab. Unsure what to do together, we went and saw Funny People because we used to watch Going Overboard (1989) on tape together during my freshman year of college. My friend felt very deeply a number of parallels between her life and that of the Adam Sandler character in Funny People. And it is for that one reason alone that I will always have an affection for Judd Apatow’s epic.