Funny People – A Flawed But Fascinating Look at a Tortured Stand-Up Comedian

I always figured comedians were the best kind of people to hang out with as a kid. Hearing them tell funny stories, making joke after joke, happiness always seemed served up to them on a silver platter. But as time went on, I came to see while they were clowns on the outside, they were crying an endless river of tears inside. Comedy from these people comes from a deep pain and sadness in their lives, or out of a deep-seated anger they have at the world around them.

Look at Richard Pryor, need I say more? He had all the money, women, cars and drugs you could ever ask for. For “Superman III,” he ended up paid more than Christopher Reeve. Still, I remember reading an interview in which he said the last truly happy moment he remembers in his life was when he was jumping around in the dirt while pretending to be a cowboy at the age of 10, and he was in his 40’s when this interview was conducted. Comedy was his constant weapon against pain, and he never held anything back in his routines.

Funny People” understands very well this gloomy realm many comedians live in, and is written and directed by a filmmaker who still performs from time to time as a standup comedian, Judd Apatow. But unlike “The 40-Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” this film has a darker edge to it and doesn’t hide away from the inherent viciousness of its characters. “Funny People” has been advertised as a comedy drama, but the balance often veers more to the dramatic. There are many laughs to be had here, but this movie clearly came from a rather dark place.

Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, a comedian turned movie star whose career looks a lot like Sander’s own. George became famous with movies like “Merman” where he played a male mermaid, and “Re-do” in which he plays a character whose body has transformed into that of an infant. Seeing George’s head digitally inserted onto a baby’s body at once gives us a great sight gag, but it also seems like the kind of silly comedy Sandler himself has made once too often. Besides, I have more than my fill of talking babies.

George has it all: a beautiful mansion overlooking the sea, a swimming pool he does laps in on a regular basis, great cars, women who don’t hesitate to sleep with him even if they have boyfriends, and all the money one could hope to live off of to the end of time. But in his eyes, we see he is a sad man who has come to truly despise himself for what he has become. All the wealth he has amassed only serves to isolate him from the rest of the world, and it makes him defensive around total strangers who are unable to see him as ever resembling a regular person. But now, his doctor has diagnosed him with a terminal disease and has only months left to live. George reacts to this news as if someone drained his blood while he wasn’t looking, and it makes him realize how much self-hatred he has. From there, he becomes to make every last minute of his life count, but this may not alter his antagonistic personality from where it currently resides.

As George Simmons, Adam Sandler gives one of his best performances to date, and its right up there with his brilliant turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love.” Not once does he back down from how George is a hard man to like. Throughout “Funny People,” George is dismissive to many around him, and he ends up being thoughtlessly mean to those who look up to him. Regardless, Sandler still manages to make you sympathize with this character and of the terminable diagnosis which he did not see coming. It’s the moments where Sandler lets it show through his eyes just how full of regret Simmons is, and it serves as proof of how this former “Saturday Night Live” performer is more talented than he thinks.

Along with this famous comedian on his cynical farewell tour is Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an aspiring young comic who is not entirely confident with his stand-up act. George catches Ira’s act one night after he makes a surprise appearance at a comedy club, and while he is hurt when Ira discusses how he bombed onstage just moments before, George thinks this kid has got talent and offers to pay him some money to write up some jokes for an upcoming benefit show. From there, George hires Ira as his personal assistant, an employment opportunity which involves more work than the average 9 to 5 job which never pays enough.

Remember all those nasty horror stories from people who were assistants to the stars and certain sociopathic studio executives? Well, Ira may have gotten off easy compared to those people, but we fear his soul will be forever crushed the longer he stays with George.

In a lot of ways, Ira is they typical kind of character Rogen has played over and over again in movies, and not just the ones he does with Apatow. While I would love to see him take on riskier roles like the one he played in “Observe and Report,” he is the perfect match for Sandler’s endlessly cynical misanthrope of George. By the movie’s end, Rogen his performance proves to be the most underrated in the film, and he believably takes Ira from someone lacking in confidence to one who finds his voice with each standup routine he does to where he shows a strength he did not know he had. Rogen makes this transition feel seamless to where he had a stand out moment when he faces down Simmons and tries to make him see how his terminal disease has not come close to changing his outlook on life.

But the one person who almost steals “Funny People” is Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann. Having already proved what a comedy dynamo she was in her husband’s previous films, there should be no more talk from those who believe she has only gotten this far as an actress because of nepotism.

Mann plays Laura, and George describes her to Ira as “the one that got away.” Laura was and still is George’s one true love, and he finds she still yearns for him even though their relationship came to a heartbreaking end when he cheated on her. This is a moment George appears to regret more than any other, and he becomes eager to make up for it as soon as he can. Laura never tries to hide her character’s undying affection for this man who is lonelier than most, and she is willing to end her marriage to an Australian soccer nut (Eric Bana, who is hilarious) who may be cheating on her as well. As Laura, Mann succeeds in making you fall for this character even while she selfishly tries to redirect her life without realizing the consequences of her actions.

There are a lot of strong elements working in favor for “Funny People,” but it doesn’t change the fact it is a deeply flawed movie. While it is good and worth watching, it will most likely be seen as one of Apatow’s weakest movies. I do like how he dared to go in a slightly different direction with this movie compared to what he has given us previously, but the balance between comedy and drama is off kilter most of the time. For many, I don’t think it will be entirely clear as to whether they are watching something comic or very serious.

Plus, at over two hours long, this movie really could have been shorter. I’m usually cool with long movies, but only if they can justify their length. It is way too easy to come off as self-indulgent when making a three-hour epic. “Funny People’s” length does cut deeply into its comic momentum, and there are spots where it things really dragged. It does pick up towards the end, but the story still could have used a bit more tightening.

Still, I really did like “Funny People” because it shows how Apatow still succeeds in giving us characters and situations which feel very real on an emotional level. With him taking his established formulas in a different direction, it is clear his work will continue to grow with each successive project he takes on.

I also love the brilliant cameos he manages to extract from big celebrities in his films. One scene in “Funny People” has George meeting up with a lot of famous comedians like Norm McDonald, Andy Dick (wow), Charles Fleischer, Collin Quinn and Sarah Silverman who has one of the movie’s funniest scenes. But the biggest surprise cameo to be found here is Eminem’s as I never expected to see him in any movie, let alone one directed by Apatow. Seeing him dissing Ray Romano provides us with an unforgettable moment where Ira ends up saying to Ray, “I thought everybody loved you.”

One perception about “Funny People” which needs to be cleared up is that it is not what many would call a “disease movie.” It is really to Apatow’s credit here that he never gets all mushy on us like many others would have when it comes to films about people who think they are facing certain death. George’s arc here is much like the character Michael Keaton played in “Clean and Sober.” In the process of trying to improve themselves and become better people, they end up fooling themselves to where they think they are changing for the better, but are instead acting more selfishly than they realize. Their attempts to help those in desperate situations reveal just how self-involved they are, and it just gets worse for them from there. It is not until the climax which has them at a place where they realize what they truly need to do to move on from a fractured past.

“Funny People” is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t go in with the normal set of expectations you have for the average Apatow production because things are a little different here. It definitely has some hilarious moments and dramatic ones, and Sandler makes it clear to us he can be a great actor when given the right material. It is also an intimate look at the fame and success one person experiences, and of how damaging and isolating it can be.

This project was really a long time coming for both Apatow and Sandler because they did share an apartment when they first moved out to Los Angeles. “Funny People” actually starts off with home video footage of them making prank phone calls which has them laughing in hysterics. It is meant to be a look of innocence which fame forever changes, but at least we can see how in real life these two funny men have their families to keep their egos in balance. George Simmons is simply the person each of them would have become if they weren’t careful.

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Little Hours’ Cast and Director Talk About Making This Satirical Comedy

The Little Hours poster

From its trailer, I figured “The Little Hours” would be a spoof of all the religious movies we grew up watching. But actually, it is a straightforward comedy which instead looks to satirize a culture we assumed was wholly religious, but was actually a lot looser and fun than history books ever made it out to be.

Based on the first tale of the third day from “The Decameron,” it stars Dave Franco as Massetto, a young servant who flees from his master after he is found out to be having an affair with his wife. Massetto is taken under the wing of Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) who agrees to hide him and pass him off to the residents as a deaf-mute to avoid detection. But among the residents are a trio of medieval nuns, Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) and Ginevra (Kate Micucci), who think nothing of berating a pleasant laborer, chafing at their given duties, and also spying on one another. When they become aware of Massetto, a wealth of sexual repression becomes awakened along with a dose of substance abuse and wicked revelry, and he wonders how long he can keep this act up before giving in to temptation.

The Little Hours Jeff Baena

“The Little Hours” was written and directed by Jeff Baena whose previous credits were “Life after Beth” and “Joshy,” and he was joined at the movie’s Los Angeles press day by actors Dave Franco, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie and Molly Shannon. Baena explained how, while he was studying filmmaking at NYU, he also earned enough credits to get a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. This is where he learned about “The Decameron,” a collection of short stories written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century. The stories dealt with life lessons and love, and I asked Baena why he chose to make a movie out of one particular story from it.

Jeff Baena: I wasn’t expecting something as funny and bawdy coming from a source material that is almost 700 years old. So, when I read it, it just read to me as something so human and just highlighted how similar we are to these people even though obviously the context is completely different. I was just drawn to how amazingly easy it is to connect to this thing and find our commonalities and also highlighting differences and showing how much we’ve changed despite that. All that stuff was really interesting to me.

I was also interested in learning from Baena about how he conceived this movie. Like I said, I thought this would be a religious spoof after watching the trailer, but “The Little Hours” proves to be much more than that. I was curious to see how this story evolved for him as he went about turning it into a movie.

Jeff Baena: I just wanted to achieve something similar to what “The Decameron” does itself which is funny. It’s a humanist book, so more than anything I just wanted to get the tone of that silliness but also the historicity which is a sort of strange balance, and then highlight all these actors who I love being in this world and then finding a way to make it adjustable for people to digest.

The Little Hours Dave and Aubrey

“The Little Hours” takes place in the year 1347 and was shot in Tuscany, Italy. As a result, it was tempting to believe the actors did a lot of research in preparation for filming. But in talking with Franco, he explained why this didn’t end up being your average period film.

Dave Franco: I kept asking Jeff what kind of research I could do and what research I should be doing, and he told me not to overthink it. He said it is not about knowing about the time period or how they talked or what activities they were doing there anything like that. It was more about the human connection. Even though the movie is set in the 14th century, it’s just about the relationships and we want you to talk in your own natural cadence. We don’t want you having to talk flowerily language. So yeah, it was just about connecting to one another.

The Little Hours Nuns

Both Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza play nuns who are not at the convent for religious reasons as much as they are for some form of persecution. Many have asked the actresses what it was like wearing the nun costumes, and they replied they were heavy and itchy. But being an actor myself, I was more interested in how these costumes influenced their performances and if it changed the way they thought about their characters. Actors spend a lot of time preparing a role, and the costume is like the finishing touch or the missing puzzle piece which completes everything.

Aubrey Plaza: Yeah. Nun habits can feel really depressing. They are like really weighing you down literally, and only having just your face exposed is really hard. So, I think psychologically it helped get us all into character because we were totally de-sexualized, we couldn’t use our bodies, and we just felt after 10 hours of that we were all kind of like, “Can we get this fucking thing off?” Because it’s a drag.

Alison Brie: I feel like it made the character. The costume, the habit, is very oppressive and I found myself to be very depressed while wearing it, and my character’s in that same mental state a lot of the movie. So, it definitely helped and it did sort of change the way I went about performing in the movie because I’m a very physical person, and I think that that is one of my biggest tools that I use often. It’s like the tool I always reach for first in the bag. So, to have that kind of physicality taken away from you and also any sexuality robbed from you and to have just this small part of your face exposed, it was an interesting challenge in minimalism and in conveying ideas with as little movement as possible sometimes.

The Little Hours Molly Shannon poster

Then there was Molly Shannon who plays Sister Marea, easily the nicest and kindest character to be found in “The Little Hours.” When it comes to Shannon, we all know her best from “Saturday Night Live,” where she created Mary Katherine Gallagher, the awkward and unpopular Catholic schoolgirl prone to severe mood swings. Last year, I got to attend a special screening of “Superstar” which starred Shannon as MKG, and she spoke of how she went to Catholic school as a child and the experiences she had which to came to inform the creation of that character. I asked Shannon if MKG or her Catholic school experiences came to inform her performance as Sister Marea in “The Little Hours.”

Molly Shannon: That’s interesting. No, I wouldn’t say so much Mary Katherine Gallagher, but we did have a nun when I was in grade school named Sister Rosemary and she seemed really unhappy to me. She was fascinating because she seemed kind of miserable. She was young and she had a beautiful face. She was my first-grade teacher and she would take the hall pass and go, “Do you want to smell it?” Meaning like she wanted to hit you with it. I used to go pray at her convent after school to get extra credit, and I would just kind of study her and I was like wow, this is so weird. This young girl lives in this clean house. And then she left the convent and was seen on this golf course with a miniskirt like whooping it up with one of my schoolmates’ fathers and I was like, “Yay, she’s free! She got out!” I think about her in that little golf cart and I’m like, “Wow!” I could see she wanted to escape. She seemed unhappy. I think I always liked to study characters. I would study people. So, I think maybe I thought more of her.

While “The Little Hours” might seem crude on the surface, it is truly one of this year’s more original and subversively wicked comedies. It also shows how the 14th century was nowhere as stolid as we all have been led to believe, and it serves as a highly entertaining showcase for Baena and his super-talented cast. It opens in theaters on June 30, so be sure to check it out!

Stills, posters and trailers courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky

Jeff Baena photo courtesy of Getty Images