Is self-loathing central to the psyche of a stand-up comic?
That’s the impression you get from Funny People, an endlessly fascinating exploration of existential dread from some of the most prominent minds in Hollywood. The movie has its problems, yet the fact that these people are even attempting something like this – as opposed to, say, Night at the Museum 2 – is reason to cheer.
I’m referring to writer-director Judd Apatow, the one-man production factory most personally responsible for The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and stars Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler. Rogen, in particular, offers some interesting work, his second arresting performance of 2009 after his mall cop by way of Travis Bickle in Observe and Report.
In Funny People, Rogen plays Ira Wright, an unsure, insecure wallflower who nonetheless is pursuing a career as a stand-up comic. He happens to run into Sandler’s George Simmons – a comic actor in the vein of Rob Schneider, if Schneider had become wildly successful – and gets hired as George’s writer and assistant.
There is a lot of meaty, behind-the-scenes comedy business here, then melodrama enters the picture when George is diagnosed with a serious illness. Yet all this does is provide a focal point for the movie’s general air of comic bitterness.
Ira and George have very different styles – Ira is meek and self-deprecating on stage, while George overcompensates with venom and anger – yet their comedy is rooted in the same thing: deep discomfort about themselves.
This comes out in their demeanor and their material. Ira almost exclusively concentrates on the pathetic details of his own life. “Is your act designed to make sure no girl will ever sleep with you?” George asks.
Meanwhile, in casual conversation, George can’t seem to go five minutes without lamenting the diminutive size of a certain body part. Add to this his shame over his biggest hits – a Schneideresque vehicle called Merman and Re-Do, a talking baby flick reminiscent of the Wayans brothers’ Little Man – and you have a superstar disgusted with himself and those who love his crappy movies.
These guys hate themselves and their lives, yet the tragic irony is that this self loathing is what fuels their humor. And despite what you’ve heard, they are funny. There are complaints that Funny People is low on laughs, but there are actually loads of them to be found (Paul Reiser, Ray Ramono, Andy Dick, Sarah Silverman and others all play themselves in cameos). It’s only that the movie is as interested in dissecting the psychology behind the jokes as telling them.
That makes Funny People less funny like a clown, as Joe Pesci might say, and more funny hmmm… Students of comedy will greatly appreciate it. Students of Little Man, not so much.