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Revisiting ‘Funny People’

“You cannot make friends with the rock stars.”
— Lester Bangs to William Miller, Almost Famous

It’s difficult for me to think about the career of Judd Apatow without being startled by its eerie similarity to Cameron Crowe’s.  While they came of age in distinctly different cultural milieus — Crowe in the hard-rock haze of early ‘70s Southern California and Apatow in the boozy New York comedy clubs of the ‘80s stand-up boom — they both transformed their earnest, ambitious fandom into established Hollywood brands. As teens they took it upon themselves to document the worlds that held their fascination: Crowe went on the road with Led Zeppelin to cover them for Rolling Stone; Apatow recorded interviews with Jerry Seinfeld and Gary Shandling which he broadcasted over his high school’s 10-watt radio station. By their early twenties both were full-fledged professional wunderkinds, with Crowe penning the screenplay for Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Apatow becoming co-creator of the celebrated The Ben Stiller Show. And then, finally, with their careers in the ascendant, both men made great films that looked back upon their improbable journey.

Here the trajectories diverge. Almost Famous was universally embraced and won Crowe an Oscar for his screenplay. Funny People performed middling at the box office and, though it snared its fair share of admirers, critical reception was mixed. That some audiences seemed not quite sure what to make of Apatow’s third and most ambitious film is understandable; it’s a tough, sometimes dark move that requires a measure of commitment from the viewer. But the fact that some reviews were so violently dismissive of such a complex and honest work reveals a near total misunderstanding by many critics of not just the movie itself, but also Apatow’s entire career.

Two reviews in particular crystallize a certain kind of ignorant animosity toward the Apatow touch. Writing for the New York Observer, the inexplicably furious Rex Reed called Apatow a “tasteless no-talent” before decrying Funny People as “smut that reduces the oxygen in the brain.” (Seriously, this review should be required reading for FBI profilers seeking insight into the mind of a psychopath. It’s hard to imagine anybody as angry about anything as Reed is about this film.) New York Magazine’s David Edelstein focused his wrath beyond Apatow to include virtually all the characters that inhabit the director’s universe. “Funny People feels insular,” writes Edelstein, “as if Apatow’s whole world consists of nerdy jokesters who were angry, lonely kids who got rich beyond their dreams and fucked women who’d never have talked to them in high school but are deep down still angry.”

Though obviously other reviews couldn’t match the absurd viciousness of those two pieces, many do in fact contain the same strain of lazy criticism. The tendency of those who dismiss Apatow is to mistakenly believe that because his movies are raunchy that precludes them from having any significant depth, that somehow vulgarity is inherently incompatible with serious work.  Even those that praise Apatow often do so while stating that his movies succeed in spite of their obsceneness (The New Republic, in a positive review for Funny People, had this to say: “The movie…feels like the work of an artist in transition, an attempt by Apatow to see how far he can push his foul-mouthed bromances toward earnest drama before finally having to let go of the dick jokes”). This almost puritanical disregard for on-screen bawdiness is careless, sloppy, and displays a shocking (or willful) ignorance about how a lot of people speak and behave in every day life. Crudeness in Apatow movies isn’t just a shock value ploy; it’s a means by which characters deflect insecurities or buffer against intimacy. Those who refuse to recognize this just can’t see the forest for the trees. Or the sophistication for the dick jokes.

Presumably because it deals with the issue of death, Funny People was heralded as Apatow’s most “mature” and “grown-up” work. The puzzling thing about that compliment is that anybody who has paid at least some attention to his career would know that Apatow has been a mature and refined director for a long time now. Take, for instance, this scene from a Freaks and Geeks episode which Apatow wrote and directed nearly a decade before Funny People. Bill Haverchuck, alone, watching Garry Shandling on TV after a defeating day at school wordlessly distills all that is simultaneously lonely, painful, exciting and glorious about adolescence.

Funny People operates at a similarly complex emotional pitch. Contrary to New York Magazine’s analysis, the film’s characters aren’t simply successful nerds on a mission to avenge high school injustices. They’re people who in one way or another are dealing with their own isolation. In particular the movie focuses on George Simmons (played by Adam Sandler), who is adored by the masses but detached from any meaningful personal relationships. The delicate examination of broken people only very slowly overcoming their inability to connect, explored through the lens of professional comedy, showcases Apatow at his most raw and revealing. “George Simmons,” he once said, “is what me or Adam would have become if we’d never got married and became sane.”

This scene of George berating his young assistant Ira accurately represents Funny People’s nuanced overall tone. It’s sad, uncomfortable, and funny — with some pretty decent mucus spewing thrown in as well. “This could have been the best meal ever” is probably the most selfishly cruel line Adam Sandler has ever uttered, and yet the humor of the moment still breathes.

Ultimately, I think the crucial difference between Apatow and Crowe — and what accounts for some interesting differences in perspective between Funny People and Almost Famous — is that Apatow actually completely became a part of the world he later depicted on screen. While Crowe had to wrestle with the warning of his mentor Lester Bangs on where to come down between objective journalism and unabashed fandom, Apatow never had a choice. He didn’t just love comedians — he was one. This reality inevitably makes the process of exploring their lives messier and more self-revealing, while also providing an interesting perch from which to glean uniquely engaging insights. The fact that Apatow and Sandler were actually friends and roommates in real life when they were struggling stand-ups adds another layer to the film’s atmosphere of cutting yet merciful reflection.

As Apatow continues to expand his body of work, I think Funny People will only grow in reputation and eventually become a benchmark in his career. As it stands now it’s a rich and poignant movie in which we get to observe the director reaching back into the past to see where he is now.

Cameron Tung is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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