‘Funny People’ Is An Underrated Masterpiece, And Adam Sandler’s Latest Misfires Make It Even Better

I’ve watched “Funny People” more times than I care to count (fun fact: Judd Apatow movies comprise roughly 40% of all cable television programming), but it never occurred to me that Apatow’s raw, shaggy, desperate masterpiece of a third feature was inspired by “The Great Gatsby.” For some reason, I didn’t automatically make the connection between The Great American Novel and a studio comedy in which Adam Sandler has sex with a stranger while pretending to be a Merman. But someone recently pointed out the parallel, and — like a Magic Eye stereogram or that bump on Jean-Claude Van Damme’s forehead — it’s the kind of thing that you can’t un-see

Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is our new Nick Carraway, an aspiring L.A. comedian who forms an unlikely relationship with a lonely, enigmatic, semi-reclusive titan of his industry. George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is our Gatsby, a mega-successful movie star whose fame and fortune have distanced him from the world beyond the walls of his empty Hollywood mansion. Simmons, like Gatsby, has made too much money on vapor; he’s spent so long buying the human connections that most people typically have to earn.

And Simmons, like Gatsby, finds himself increasingly preoccupied with the girl who got away — his Daisy Buchanan is a retired actress named Laura (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife), a married mother of two who lives up in Marin County with her philandering Australian husband. Gatsby’s signature line: “You can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” George Simmons’ signature movie: “Re-Do,” in which he plays an adult man who’s magically transported into the body of a baby after he runs afoul of a rogue wizard. F. Scott Fitzgerald practically deserved a credit on this thing.

Of course, the tension between the drag of the past and the thrust of the future is a theme that isn’t strictly limited to the works of Apatow and Fitzgerald, but it’s interesting how the former explores that theme through the lens of modernism, while the latter does so through the herbal haze of man-children.

If “The Great Gatsby” is preoccupied with the decline of the American Dream, with the tenuous dynamic between progress and excess, “Funny People” refocuses those same undercurrents into a study of the uneasy balance between adolescence and adulthood. It includes a scene in which a stand-up comic named Raaaaaaaandy (Aziz Ansari) compares Cold Stone Creamery to a crack dealer, and it also includes a scene in which George Simmons silently contemplates his own mortality while listening to Warren Zevon’s soul-shattering “Keep Me in Your Heart.”

This isn’t Apatow’s most likable film, or his most purely enjoyable; it’s hard to compete with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which set the tone for a new generation of mainstream comedy, or “Knocked Up,” which galvanized that generation into something sustainable. All the same, “Funny People” is the most unapologetically honest and heartfelt expression of an idea that has been at the core of every movie that Apatow has ever made about men and their tendency to self-infantilize when confronted with the challenges of adulthood. 

“Funny People” feels like an open wound from the moment it starts, deeply personal for both the man behind the camera and the star in front of it. That intimate edge is present from the opening credits, which play over home video footage of a young Sandler — a few years shy of “SNL” and the fame that followed — making crank calls from his living room (fun fact: the footage was actually shot by Apatow himself, who used to be Sandler’s roommate). It’s a strikingly confessional gambit, the movie going out of its way to conflate Sandler with George Simmons from the very start. And the self-ashamed implications of that association soon become obvious to anyone who’s even remotely familiar with Sandler’s work: Both men have more money than they could ever hope to spend in one lifetime, and both men have earned that money by sacrificing their comic genius at the altar of soulless Hollywood dreck.

Back then, of course, it was natural to assume that “Funny People” was Sandler’s thinly veiled mea culpa for his own mediocrity, that he was vowing to do better going forward. We knew that it could be singularly exciting to see the comedian step out of his comfort zone, we knew that the best moments of his big-screen career had all resulted from lending his persona to great filmmakers and allowing them to subvert it however they chose, and we were still waiting for Sandler to do that on a more regular basis. The natives were understandably growing restless after a streak of clunkers that included “Click,” “Bedtime Stories,” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.”

Sandler didn’t quite see things that way. While he obviously recognized the parallels between himself and George Simmons, he refused to consider them as a tacit admission of guilt. In fact, he refused to think about them at all. “This guy that I play is leading a different life than I live,” he said at the time of the film’s release, helpfully explaining how the basic concept of acting works.

Digging back into the film’s press tour and reflecting on the project in light of what Sandler has done since, it starts to seem as though the comedian wasn’t confronting the mistakes that he’s made so much as celebrating the ones that he hasn’t. The film doesn’t build to an admission of guilt, and Simmons never rededicates his life to making better art. The movie didn’t spark a compelling new chapter of Sandler’s career; it only precipitated a series of bold new lows that began with “Jack and Jill,” led to “Pixels,” and culminated with a lucrative Netflix deal that made his diseased brand airborne. For Sandler, George Simmons’ career was less of a cautionary tale than it was a source of inspiration. The worse that his career gets, the more compelling “Funny People” becomes: Three films into his Netflix contract, the movie is now a bonafide masterpiece.

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Ira is a kid who thinks that fame is the most important thing there is (and Seth Rogen has never looked younger than he does here). A stilted, mediocre new standup whose obvious naïveté makes him a perfect foil for someone as jaded as George, Ira works a day job behind the butcher counter at a supermarket (“Otto’s my lotto!”) and lives in a veritable incubator for comedians with his hostile friend Leo (Jonah Hill) and their noxiously successful roommate, Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman, legendary as the preening star of a beautifully awful network sitcom called “Yo, Teach!”).

Ira and Leo are both broke, but the only currency they really seem to care about is humor. Apatow knows this world inside and out, and he knows that everyone in it falls into one of two categories: “funny” and “not funny.” If you’re funny, you might have a future. If you’re not funny, you’re invisible. Nothing else really matters.

Ira is not funny, at least not when he’s on stage (the character spews great dialogue at all other times). But George doesn’t seem to care. In fact, that might be what he likes about Ira, what inspires him to hire the kid as a part-time joke-writer and full-time assistant — here’s someone who probably doesn’t have the talent required to lose his way, someone who’s never going to have the luxury of choosing fame over family. But, by the time the movie starts, George and Ira have reached the same nadir of funniness together. In fact, we meet George at a point in his life when he’s as bland as the movies he makes, and bubbled away from reality as a result of the money that his movies have made him.

When he’s told that he’s dying, George suddenly decides that he needs someone to tell him the truth about who he is and what he’s become, but he’s too sensitive to hear it. He learns the hard way that life is more than fame and fortune. He’s a classic fool in a world where clowns are treated like kings.

While all of Apatow’s work (even “Trainwreck,” to some degree) challenges men to figure out what’s really important to them, “Funny People” goes about that task in a messier — but more aggressively direct — way than usual. Its premise doesn’t have a simple end goal; it doesn’t climax with the main character losing his virginity or becoming a parent. The director was only 41 when he made it, but “Funny People” feels like the work of a much older man in a position to make anything he wants. It’s an “Ikiru” for the “Freaks and Geeks” generation.

And like that Akira Kurosawa classic, which also begins with its hero receiving a terminal diagnosis, “Funny People” grapples with how difficult it can be for someone to have a meaningful change of heart, and it knows how small that change can ultimately seem to those outside of it. The catalyst for George’s awakening is Laura, who always loved him but couldn’t wait around for him to work out his kinks. The exes eventually almost delude themselves into thinking they can try again, but his attempt at being a decent father to Laura’s kids is by far the worst performance of George’s career (and that includes the wretchedly racist “Sayonara, Davey!”).

The essential third act has received a lot of flack over the years for taking the film well beyond the two-hour mark and introducing new characters very late in the game, but the raw beauty of Apatow’s epic lives in the friction between the fantasy of what George wants and the reality of what comes with it. Happiness isn’t as easy as catching up with the one who got away. He can’t go back in time, he can’t rejoin Laura’s life midstream, he can’t magically transform celebrity into love.

All of Apatow’s movies argue that monogamy is the most reliable way to save people from themselves, this is the only one that denies its hero that option. It leaves George looking for scraps of love, starting over from scratch as he sits across a table from Ira at the Otto’s food court. It’s no wife, but it’s a start.

“Funny People” isn’t a story about the value of artistic integrity — it’s a story about the value of everything else. It’s a story about how all the success in the world, creative or otherwise, can’t keep you warm at night. This is the film that most fundamentally affirms the strict moralism of Apatow’s art, clarifying him as a no-holds-barred Frank Capra with a dirty mind, a good heart, and a hyper-referential love for pop culture. If “Funny People” feels like the work of an older man, perhaps that’s because — underneath the dick jokes and the Eminem cameo and Eric Bana shouting about how much he wants to fuck Cameron Diaz — it’s really just an old-fashioned sermon about how men are mere boys until they meet a good woman.

The film captures the raw anger of letting life slip through your fingers, the pain of it burning through your palms as you disbelieve the love you deserve (“You’d be disappointed, believe me,” George says when talking about the disillusionment of getting to know the real him). But “Funny People” wasn’t a lonely superstar allowing his public to see the real him. On the contrary, it was a happily married man taking stock of the perpetually single guy he didn’t become; it was a very rich person affirming his personal philosophy that what you make isn’t nearly as important as what you have.

“I don’t know how these other actors go movie to movie and lose their mind in their roles and have a real life,” Sandler said while promoting the film. For him, this stuff is just something he does. It’s work — obscenely well-paid work. The days of “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” are over; now every new movie is just a chance to hang out with his buddies on Netflix’s dime. He may push back against this once a decade by lending his talents to an auteur like Noah Baumbach, but with every “The Ridiculous Six” and “That’s My Boy” it’s become increasingly clear that George Simmons was never going to be a wake-up call for Adam Sandler, because Adam Sandler was already the man who George Simmons desperately wanted to be. Same shitty movies, much better life.

“Funny People” is a movie that argues that happiness is other people, and everything else is just noise. It’s a great film unto itself, and everything Sandler has done since has only served to underscore the conviction of its ideas. “Funny People” is deeply personal for Sandler, but it’s not an apology, it’s an act of self-affirmation. George Simmons may hopelessly try to repeat the past, but now — almost 10 years removed from this incredible performance — it’s clear that the guy who plays him has always been perfectly fine with his present.

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