Dear Mr. Apatow,
I would like to give you a gift. I will hire an independent editor to work on your next film and trim out all of the scenes they think are unnecessary or repetitive. Perhaps, if you accept this gift, Mr. Apatow, your next film will be the masterful comedy everyone expects you to make.
You are a funny guy. No one can dispute that. There are scenes of pure comic genius in each of the three films you have directed. You are also very good at creating funny situations out of normal everyday circumstances. Two keys to creating memorable comedies.
But all of your films are too long. Even the films you produce need to be trimmed. In "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up", the problem was less noticeable because I think we were so thrilled to be experiencing the ride Steve Carrell and Catherine Keener were on, or to experience the lives of Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen, becoming a part of their world made up for some of the excessive length of these films.
In your newest film, "Funny People" Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a famous comedian and movie star living in a huge, fancy house. On a routine visit to the doctor, George receives some bad news; he has a rare form of leukemia and has just a few months to live. They also want him to take some experimental medicines, offering him a slim chance of beating the disease. Naturally, George becomes introspective and quiet, facing his large empty house, he begins to wonder why love has eluded him for years. Then he decides to start doing stand up again, visiting various comedy clubs only too happy to have a star of his stature drop in for a set. Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is a struggling stand-up who lives with Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzmann). Mark just landed a highly lucrative gig on a television sitcom called "Yo, Teach!" and can't resist leaving his paychecks on Ira's pillow. One night, Ira is thrilled to receive the news he will be able to perform for 10 minutes (double the usual) at a comedy club. Just as he is about to go on, he learns that George Simmons has shown up and wants to go on. Ira has been bumped again. George fails to impress the audience. Ira watches from the wings and when he goes on, he does some material on George's set, which George, in turn, watches. George asks Ira to write some jokes for him, for an upcoming appearance and the two begin a relationship. Eventually, George asks Ira to become his assistant and shares the news of his illness with Ira. But George has other unfinished business; he pines for Laura (Leslie Mann) a girlfriend who broke up with him and moved to Northern California. He tries to contact her, but she is still very bitter and has a husband (Eric Bana) and two kids. Eventually, George and Ira drive up to San Francisco for a gig and Marin, where Laura lives, is just a hop, skip and a jump away.
When the story centers on a bunch of comics, the film is funny and introspective. When the story tries to turn more dramatic, and centers on all of the unrequited loves in George's life, it becomes less interesting, slightly maudlin and incredibly slow.
There are certain comedians I can only take in small doses and Sandler is one of those. In his typical Sandler films, his characters are far too broad and over the top to make them remotely believable or engaging. In his two non-typical films, "Punch Drunk Love" and now "Funny People", he works with directors who know their craft and can help him create something more real, less broad, and more dramatic. Of course, if you ask an Adam Sandler fan about these films, they hate them because they don't contain the frat boy humor, the antics the comedian is so well known for. That is exactly why I appreciate them more.
I think the key difference between "40 Year Old Virgin", "Knocked Up" and "Funny People" is that his first two films dealt with the lives of 'normal' people; a service tech in an electronics store, a woman working her way up at a basic cable channel. These are people we can relate to, people who make sense to us. Because of this, Mr. Apatow, you have to work less to help us identify with them. You can concentrate your efforts on making them interesting and crazy and funny. You can reveal all of their foibles and idiosyncrasies and we can identify with them.
In "Funny People", you set up George Simmons as a famous film comedian, the type who commands $20 million dollar paydays. He learns he may be dying. He has remorse and sets about making his life better. Even though Simmons is dying, Sandler has to work that much harder to make us feel anything for him, and it is all but impossible to identify with him. This is a problem as he is the main character and we should want to follow him on his journey.
I think you want us to substitute our feelings to Ira and his crew and expect them to become our surrogates in this story. Ira becomes associated with George, the public can identify with George through Ira, and we're all set. But that isn't exactly right. Ira is a struggling comedian, but he never really seems to struggle. He's living with his buddy who just landed a job on a network sitcom and he never seems to want for anything. Sure, he is extremely amazed when George hands him a few thousand dollars, his payment for writing the jokes for him, but once Ira enters George's world, he becomes a part of this and the struggle seems to end.
It also doesn't help that despite all of George's protests and ruminations about how he wants to change his life, little happens and he doesn't seem to make any changes. He talks a lot about Laura and even meets with her a few times. Then, when they travel to San Francisco, she invites them over to dinner and they meet her two little girls. And so on and so forth…
This brings me to the other problem with "Funny People". It's too long. Way tooo long. It is interminably long. Worse, this could have been easily remedied by some good editing (of both the screenplay and the film) and the end result would have been so, so much better. After George asks Ira to become his assistant, there are at least two conversations about Ira selling George's cars on Ebay and donating the proceeds to charity. Why? We don't ever see the cars and yet they keep talking about it. George decides he wants to mend some fences, so he talks to his sister, trying to reestablish a connection with her. It doesn't go well. Yet later, we see her family (husband and child) in the pool while George talks to his elderly dad and mom. It is a nice image, but even this short scene seems to long.
Then, George decides to attend Thanksgiving at Ira's house, visiting with all of his friends and roommates. This could've been a very interesting, challenging scene for all involved. But ultimately it only seems to be challenging for us, the viewer. George walks around, observing everyone and interjecting a joke on occasion. Finally, he gives a toast when they sit down to dinner. The scene is too long and doesn't really seem to contribute to the rest of the story.
After spending what I am going to guess it about 100 minutes (it seems a lot longer), the story suddenly shifts to San Francisco. George performs his act to a packed crowd and asks Ira to keep Laura company. After the show, they go to her house in Marin and meet her kids. Some scenes of both George and Ira acting like human toys for the girls, while Laura looks on endearingly follow this. This is followed by many conversations about Lara's family life and her suspicions that her husband (Eric Bana) cheats on her during his many business trips. It is almost like a second film, a second story with just the slimmest connection to the rest of the film.
This might work if the story were put into motion earlier, but as it comes at what would be the end of most films, it just makes the experience almost unbearable.
Because we were able to readily identify with Steve Carrell, Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl in the two earlier films, the excessive length of these films was less noticeable. In "Funny People", there are some laughs, but they are few and far between. Sandler does an interesting job, trying to make George dramatic and introspective, but he isn't entirely successful, making it difficult to have any empathy with him. Because we don't really care for him, you have to wonder what the point of the entire film is? What the point of all 145 minutes of the film is? When you start to think this way, you start to squirm in your seat and wonder why you ever bought a ticket for the film in the first place.
Mr. Apatow, I plead with you to do some very critical editing on your next film. Make sure the story moves and the characters are believable. When we combine that with the laughs you will have no trouble generating, I am sure we are all in for a treat.
But "Funny People" is no treat.