Judd Apatow's spectacular comedic drama "Funny People" seems drawn toward generating emotional jolts rarely seen in mainstream cinema.
In sequence after sequence Apatow takes his audience from the peak of laughter down into the valley of tragedy - and vice versa - with stunning elegance. Few films ever dare to try and do something this difficult - and even fewer succeed as Apatow's does.
Apatow's film has the flavor of memoir. It's about three young comedian roommates of varying success trying to reach the top. There's Leo (Jonah Hill) who's had recent success with getting regular paid-stand up gigs. There's Mark (Jason Schwartzman) who flaunts his role on a cheesy sitcom. And then there's Ira (Seth Rogen) who's at the bottom of the food chain and having to sleep on the pull-out sofa in the apartment's living room. Ira's struggling to get non-paid stand-up gigs.
Ira's luck begins to change, though, when superstar stand-up comedian and movie star George Simmons (Adam Sandler) comes to the same comedy club to do a surprise set. George's material is darker than the audience is expecting. And for good reason: he's been recently diagnosed with a rare blood disease which kills the majority of its victims. A friendless George reaches out to Ira and hires him as his personal assistant and a joke writer. What he's really hiring him as is his friend, though.
George initially tries to keep his illness a secret, only telling Ira. Eventually this becomes too much a burden to bear and Ira encourages him to reach out to other people, including his celebrity friends (who play themselves.) Eminem in particular shines in his cameo.
One of these confidantes is George's ex-fiancée Laura (Leslie Mann) now married to Clarke (Eric Bana), an Australian businessman. The couple aren't particularly happy but they have two little girls to keep in mind.
As George and Laura grow closer through the emotional turmoil of George's illness it falls on Ira to step in and try and prevent a family from being torn apart.
Sandler hardly has the best reputation in the cinematic world but "Funny People" again demonstrates something that's been clear to many careful observers for years: give him the right script and a top-notch director and he can be fantastic. Exhibit A is "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood" auteur P.T. Anderson's "Punch Drunk Love." In the 2002 film Sandler played a variation of his comedic persona (the shy, quiet, childlike misanthrope filled with bottled-up rage and creative energy) to powerful dramatic effect. Combined with Anderson's oddball, artsy touch and witty script it became clear that Sandler could do more than the mediocrity of "Little Nicky," "Happy Gilmore," and "Billy Madison."
"Funny People" also adds further credibility to supporting stars Eric Bana and Seth Rogen. We've grown so accustomed to seeing Bana in more serious roles ("Troy," "Star Trek," "Munich") that it's refreshing to allow him to return to his comedic roots. (It was Bana's stand-up comedy that led to being cast in his breakout role in the electrifying Australian crime film "Chopper.")
Rogen also gets an opportunity to further establish his dramatic chops. We also see a bit more of his range. He's not playing the same stoner/slacker character he always plays.
The real star, though, is Apatow. He's not just repeating what he did with "The 40-Year-Old-Virgin" and "Knocked Up." He's genuinely developing and pushing himself as a filmmaker. He's experimenting - and it's paying off. His razor sharp swings of tone from high comedy to deep tragedy in "Funny People" are the comedic innovation of the year. In juxtaposing his laughs with such rich moments of dramatic tension he intensifies them.
Perhaps his only problem now is that he's set the bar too high. "Knocked Up" and "Virgin" both allowed for plenty of room to grow. But where does he go next now? Certainly he'll come up with something innovative and exciting. And now with the stunning success of "Funny People" no one can have an excuse not to have him on their radar.