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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen prove that the best comedy comes from pain in Judd Apatow's third film, Funny People.
Judd Apatow's new comedy Funny People opens with a real piece of home video footage the filmmaker shot many years ago when his friend Adam Sandler was a rising young comedian. In the video, Sandler is making crank calls to a restaurant, pretending to be an old woman who got sick on the food. It's the perfect preamble for the comedy-about-comedians that follows, because the prank is as juvenile as it as hilarious and this is a film about people who are both.

Sandler plays George Simmons, a very successful Adam Sandler-like comedian whose cutting edge stand-up comedy has given way to some pretty lame (but inexplicably popular) movies, including one in which his head is grafted onto a baby's body. George is a party kind of guy, always looking to hook up with some new girl. When he is diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, his world is shaken. Suddenly, he's not funny anymore; when he takes the stage at a local comedy club, he is so burdened by fear that he can't find anything comical to say. George suddenly starts to get his life together: he spends more time with his parents, sister, and nephew. He begins to mentor younger comics. He also reaches out to the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann), who dumped him after he cheated on her and is now in a strained marriage to an unfaithful Australian named Clarke (Eric Bana). Not above using his illness as fodder, George gets Laura's sympathies, and before long they are reconnecting.

In a parallel plot, Seth Rogen portrays Ira Wright, grocery store deli worker by day and aspiring stand-up by night. His roommates, Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), are, respectively, a slightly more successful comic and a sitcom actor. George asks Ira and Leo to write jokes for him, but an envious Ira squeezes his friend out of the offer. Later, he becomes George's assistant, confidant, and protector. When an experimental treatment puts George's disease into remission, Ira is appalled by the tenacity with which he pursues Laura, given that she's married and has children. It disturbs him that this man he has long idolized has not learned anything from his ordeal.

It has long been said that comedians are notorious for their personality disorders, and that's what Funny People is ultimately about. George Simmons is a flawed, dysfunctional guy whose humor comes from long-standing emotional pain. When he has a near-death experience, he briefly flirts with becoming a better person, but when told he's okay, he reverts back to his old self. In contrast, part of the reason Ira's career doesn't take off is that he's not angry enough. He tries to do the right thing, is afraid to make a genuine move on a woman, and mistakenly believes that show business should be "fair." In many ways, Ira represents our entry point into the screwed-up psyches of comedians; he sees the situations from a slightly outside perspective, as we do.

Apatow and Sandler both come from a stand-up background, so they know the milieu they're dealing with. The first two-thirds of the movie give us a riveting glimpse inside a world few of us understand. It's a world where people are jealous and viciously competitive, even going so far as to actively root against their friends. This is fascinating stuff, especially since George is so accustomed to the lifestyle and Ira is not. A lot of humor comes from that clash. There are also moments of the actors (and others) doing stand-up comedy that often borders on brilliance.

The last third of Funny People moves out of the clubs and into Marin Country, where Ira gets stuck while George tries to win back Laura. Some viewers may not like this section as much, especially since the tone shifts a little more toward the dramatic, but I felt that it represented essentially the whole point of the movie. This is not a story about stand-up comedy per se (although that's part of it) but rather about the trajectory of a guy who generates humor from dysfunction and is therefore almost pathologically inclined to create as much dysfunction around him as possible. Apatow's message seems to be that comedians are, by nature, largely screwed up and there may be little they can do about it.

Funny People represents a deepening of what Judd Apatow does. His previous films, The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up were raunchy comedies with a little bit of heart. This one is a more serious-minded and emotional character study, with a significant amount of raunchy humor thrown in. In tone, I'd compare it to the works of someone like James L. Brooks or Cameron Crowe; the comedy is definitely there, but within the context of identifiable characters and situations.

Adam Sandler has never been better. He gets to show some real range here. Since George Simmons specializes in silly comedy, Sandler also gets a chance to exercise his more juvenile side. I think this is the role of a lifetime for him, as he gets to be incredibly funny while also digging away at the darker part of his character. Seth Rogen has a career highlight as well. He's essentially de-Rogened himself for the part. The actor has lost weight, abandons the famous (and beloved) "Rogen chuckle," and plays a character who is full of nervous twitches. All the supporting actors match the two stars. Hill and Schwartzman are very memorable in their scenes, and so are Aziz Ansari as an obnoxious comedian named Randy and Aubrey Plaza as a female comic Ira wants to date.

What I love most about Funny People is that it feels authentic. The behind-the-scenes look at stand-up comedy is effectively Darwinian, yet the story also finds a lot of truth in the idea that the best comedy doesn't necessarily come from a place of inner peace. Hilarious while also being poignant and wise, Funny People is, hands down, my favorite movie of the summer.

( out of four)

Funny People is rated R for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 25 minutes.

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