As Randy Pausch proved when he became one of the most sought-after inspirational speakers in his final year of life, death can have a way of reminding us what really matters. As we have recently seen in the approach and wake of various celebrity deaths, death has way of bringing those relationships we shared with others during our lifetimes to the foreground. And as Funny People, the newest film by director Judd Apatow, proves, within the framework of one man’s impending death lies a entire array of both serious and amusing lessons to be learned about life, death, and everything that fills the in-between.
When Funny People begins, we meet an early-nineties George Simmons (Adam Sandler) as he makes prank calls to customer service lines and fills his small, sparsely furnished apartment with laughter. In the next scene, we follow Simmons as he starts the day off in a palatial Los Angeles mansion, makes his way through a maze of fans clamoring for autographs, and arrives at his doctor’s office to be told he has virtually untreatable Leukemia. Cue a phone call to Laura (Leslie Mann), the one girl he still loves and hasn’t spoken to in twelve years, to tell her he’s sorry. Follow it with an impromptu appearance at a local comedy club where his gloomy diatribe prompts Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), the young comedian who follows him, to liken Simmons’ act to watching comedy’s greatest slit their wrists on stage. Set up Rogen and Sandler as student and teacher and Sandler and Mann as semi-reunited lovers, and you’re pretty much ready to go.
Running over two and half hours long and split by the revelation that Simmons seems to have been cured, Funny People is almost like two movies in one. In the first and much stronger half, its stars are Sandler and Rogen, its core is standup comedy, and its look at life and its meaning is one that comes off as both effortlessly amusing and naturally enlightening. Peppered by comedy acts and cameos by many other well-known faces in entertainment, even as it deals with Simmons’ impending death and his realization that his life as he has lived it so far doesn’t seem to have any meaning at all, it rarely becomes heavy-handed or overly dramatic.
The exchange which hilariously and honestly puts a dead-end life in perspective: Eminem’s angry rant about how Simmons’ should have just taken his out when he got it (’cause what is the life they are leading worth anyway?). The contrast which highlights the emptiness that not only fills Simmons’ home, but has crept into his career as a comedian: Ira’s childish excitement before a big show and Simmons’ near jealousy of that combination of nerves and adrenaline that he hasn’t known for years. The scene that captures the despair of waking up on day and realizing everything you have means nothing: Simmons’ tearful and hopeless exclamation that for all he’s paid for, none of it works. The dynamic which shows how much value even one true friendship can bring to even the most hopeless and empty of lives: a growing closeness between Simmons and Ira complete with childhood reminiscences, public displays of sadness, and hugs of celebration.
For the second half of the film, we journey up to Laura’s home in Northern California. The new life dilemma on the table: the joy and excitement of times we remember versus the muted sparkle and satisfaction of the lives and people we have known longer. The less than engaging exploration of said dilemma: a fairly absurd triangle between Mann’s confused Laura, her minimally involved husband Clarke (Eric Bana), and Sandler’s in-the-deep-end-before-he-knows-it Simmons. The take-home message: memory does not equal reality, words do not equal action, and intention does not equal actual change.
Of course also still along for the ride, and about the only character who enables the second half of the movie to still keep its head above water, is Rogen’s Ira. As Ira puts it at the beginning of the movie, he’s pretty much just an average guy. He’s not incredibly good looking, but he’s not ugly. Although he dreams of one day becoming the next Simmons, his day job is behind a deli counter and his bed is in his friend’s living room. But although he may not look like Brad Pitt and does not quite have a comedy routine that brings down the house, he’s got something. As both his friends and Simmons’ point out, his problem is that he does not seem to recognize, believe in, or value what he has. As his friend tells him when he tries to bully him into going after the cute girl who moved in next door, “I do this because I care about you.” As Simmons’ says of a particular “asset” of Ira’s: “You got to use it. You got to share it with the world.”
But instead of carelessly and aggressively throwing himself at every opportunity life sends his way and every pursuit the world tells him to go after, Ira gives us perhaps the most compelling life lesson of the film as he both recognizes the value in what he already has and seeks not temporary pleasures but lasting value as he builds his life beyond that. While he pursues both professional achievement and romance with a bit more gusto, he does not do so by abandoning who he is and the values by which he has always lived. Even though he eventually has to risk losing much of what he has gained to do what he believes is right, by standing up for what he knows to be of value, Ira reveals that while there may be a piece of him that simply wants to have fun and entertain others, he recognizes greater worth in a life that goes one step further to also give a bit more to those he meets. And in the end, as teacher and student reunite in a scene that could be compared to Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet (that is, if Jesus had the foulest mouth on the planet), the message is that perhaps the greatest achievement and value we can find in this life is not in being the best or having the most, but in selflessly giving of whatever we have to those around us.