There are two things that are strange about Judd Apatow's criminally underrated comedy-drama Funny People. One is that it was completely overlooked when it came to awards season in 2009. The second is that Adam Sandler instantly went back to making the kind of films his character George Simmons makes in the film.
When the film first came out, it was on the crest of a wave. Everything Apatow was touching was turning to gold. As a producer, he was having monster hits with Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. He also turned Seth Rogen's screenplays for Superbad and Pineapple Express into critical and commercial hits, and as writer/director he made instant classics The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up.
Expectations were high for Apatow's next directorial adventure then. With old friend Adam Sandler signed on to play a phenomenally successful but sad, shallow and lonely comedian who discovers he has a rare form of leukaemia, Funny People was expected to be the next hit, despite the more grown-up and dramatic themes. With box office gold Sandler on board and Apatow regulars Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and real-life wife Leslie Mann in support, surely it couldn't fail?
But fail it did, at least in comparison to earlier projects. Maybe the expectations were too high after Virgin and Knocked Up, or maybe people didn't want to see Sandler playing it (almost) straight. The two occasions he'd tried that previously, in 2002 with PT Anderson's Punch Drunk Love and in James L. Brooks' Spanglish in 2004, it fell on deaf ears. People wanted to see Sandler shouting at people, falling over a lot, then getting the girl and learning a life lesson. Shame really, as Punch Drunk Love is an absolute gem.
The free reign that Sandler gives Apatow in creating the character of George Simmons for him is astounding. If they were not old friends, it would be hard to see how an actor would allow a director to get this close to the bone. George Simmons is as close to Adam Sandler as you're going to get without making a documentary. He's stuck in a rut of his own making: acting in god-awful comedies that make millions, addicted to the fame and what that fame brings: Money, women and the freedom to do what he wants. Even if it comes at the cost of seclusion from the real world and estrangement from his family.
When Simmons discovers he has a rare blood disease, he is put on an experimental medicine treatment that has an 8% chance of working. It is from this point that Sandler delivers some of the most uncomfortable, unsettling and brilliant work from any actor in a long time. When he turns up at the local comedy club where novice comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is performing and gives an impromptu performance, it is seriously dark and uncomfortable to watch.
After a nervous Ira uses his five minutes on stage to mock Simmons' bizarre performance, a chance meeting between the two leads to Simmons asking Ira to write jokes for him while he makes his comeback to stand-up comedy. Ira jumps at the chance, and becomes Simmons' assistant-of-sorts.
Over the course of the film, Simmons begins mentoring Ira in comedy, whereas Ira is mentoring Simmons in how to be a better person, only with less success. It isn't until the medicine starts to work, and a clean bill of health is on the cards, that Simmons makes the choice to put right what fame and fortune helped put wrong. But it's not going to be easy.
We emphasize with George Simmons over the course of the film because of Adam Sandler's honest and raw performance, and also because of how accomplished Judd Apatow has become as a writer. The film could have become a formula comedy-drama with a big Coldplay number and a montage and an everything-will-be-alright ending, but Simmons makes you work hard to like him, and by the time the film ends, there is no guarantee that you will. But you will respect the fact he's trying to be a better person, and he's now prepared to put the work in.
The main criticism of the film - and it is a regular Apatow criticism - is that it is too long. It's nearly two and a half hours long, and the drawn out end sequence with Simmons' lost love (played by Leslie Mann) requires the patience of a saint, even if it does have a killer comic cameo from Aussie legend Eric Bana. Other cameos come from Eminem, Paul Reiser, Norm MacDonald, Andy Dick, Ray Romano and Sarah Silverman.
If Apatow can hone in his indulgent side, he can become a great director in the vein of Allen and Cassavetes, but with Funny People, he made the great leap from 'writer/director of comedies' to simply writer/director, and that's a great transition to be able to make.
Let's hope This is 40 will be hilarious and get bums on seats when it arrives at the end of the year.