This Judd Apatow comedy revolves around comedians. But they're mostly funny in a "Don't eat that chicken—it smells funny" way, not a "That was so funny milk shot out my nose" way.
George Simmons is the funniest person in Funny People. A raunchy, self-centered and wildly successful comedian, George seems to have it all: a fabulous house, a thriving career, a legion of adoring fans—oh, and a barely treatable form of leukemia, too. No laughing matter, that. The cancer has already advanced to the point where radiation and chemotherapy will be no help at all, and George's only option is to take experimental drugs that probably won't work.
Funny thing is, cancer might be the best thing that's ever happened to George. Through the prism of his illness, the comedian suddenly gets some perspective on his rather vapid life: He's a man who's lost touch with his family and never bothered to make any real friends. So how does a fabulously wealthy, friendless comic deal with such an ordeal? He hires a best bud. Ira Wright is a deli jockey who moonlights as a comedian. And, ostensibly, he's supposed to be George's one-man posse: the guy who writes his jokes, cooks his breakfast and fetches him the occasional Diet Coke. But Ira also becomes George's confidante and conscience—neither of which George has had for a long, long time.
"You're my closest friend, and I don't even like you," George admits—in a funny sort of way, of course.
Ira has his faults. He makes mistakes. But he is Funny People's unquestioned moral core—Jiminy Cricket to George's wayward Pinocchio. Eventually convincing George to make his sickness a little more public, Ira says, "People care for you. They want to be there for you." And when George uses his illness to reestablish connections with Laura, an old girlfriend—one who's now married with two kids—Ira advises him to leave her be: Don't search for happiness, he says, "at the expense of this family."
George tells Ira to drop it, but Ira can't. And he ends up risking his job trying to help Laura and her hubby patch things up.
It's all in a day's work for Ira, who believes in romance, treating women with respect and taking relationships slowly. It's completely antithetical to the ethos around him—so odd that he eventually creates a routine based on his countercultural sexual ethics. "I want to friend her," he says onstage. "I want to drive her to the airport."
To be fair, I should mention that George's reboot of his relationship with Laura was originally supposed to be an altruistic reconciliation. Seemingly dying, George really wanted to apologize for being such a jerk back in the day. And Laura, who had harbored 12 years of hatred for the comic, finds the capacity to forgive him.
[Spoiler Warning] Alas, the relationship takes an entirely different turn. But while George may think the "right" thing to do is to get Laura away from her husband—a fellow who doesn't appreciate her and, we learn, cheated on her—the film doesn't agree. Laura's oldest child tells George how uncool it would be if her parents divorced. And hubby eventually admits to and repents of his infidelity, begging for another chance. Laura ultimately chooses her marriage and family—even with its imperfections—over George's cash, swagger and supposedly good intentions.
George gives lots of money to a charity.
We learn that both Ira and George are culturally Jewish, but neither seems to be particularly religious. While George talks about his Bar Mitzvah in one sketch, he says in another he was raised in a family of atheists where religion never had a chance. Thus, Funny People features glancing references to religious rites and customs, but they're not shown as driving forces in anyone's life. Here, "grace" before Thanksgiving dinner isn't a prayer, but rather a poignant, inspirational speech.
The exception would be Laura's husband, who travels to China quite a bit on business and references his "Buddhist friends." He believes that many of his family's problems (along with those he's having with George and Ira) are the result of karma—cosmic comeuppance for his own bad decisions. "We have to learn from this," he says solemnly. "All of us."
There's talk of death opening the door to either heaven or hell. And one of George's friends speculates about the sexual deal the successful comic must have struck with the devil.
Three sex scenes involve sexual motion, noise and graphic dialogue. One implies oral sex. Another includes breast nudity. During intercourse, George tells a "date" that he likes it when she talks about her dad. And he makes Ira tell him about the first time he fondled a girl.
But this being a Judd Apatow movie (remember, he's the guy who created Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin), that's just the beginning of the sexual content. Conversations and comedy routines sometimes revolve around sex acts. And jokes continuously blast audiences with a bewildering array of crude references to the male anatomy. Sometimes they carry with them suggestions of homosexuality; more often they fixate on size or placement or what one anatomical part might say to another, if they could somehow talk.
"I wanted to accurately portray how comedians speak to each other," Apatow told USA Today. "The vast majority of their conversations are about their penises and testicles and size and what they might do to them and what they hope someone else does to them. We debated it a lot. We said, 'There are a lot of jokes in the crotch area.' Then we started thinking about our friends, and someone said, 'I think this is still about 10 percent of what most of our comic friends are doing in a 24-hour period,' and that's the funny thing.
"It takes a lot to make a comedian laugh, and you have to go much farther to offend them," Apatow added.
Elsewhere, Daisy, a woman Ira has a crush on, sleeps with one of Ira's best friends after she gets drunk. She initially brags that, as a 21st century female, she has every right to do so. (She later admits it wasn't the smartest thing.) In a pair of cameos, rapper Eminem "invites" comedian Ray Romano to perform various sexual acts on him. Sarah Silverman manipulates her lips and tongue in order to evoke images of her vagina.
George, Ira and Laura's husband get into a brawl on Laura's front lawn: George winds up with a bloody scratch on the side of his face.
Several comedians joke about suicide—most obviously when George asks Ira if he'd be willing to kill him for $50,000. When Ira says he'd like have the evening to think it over, George tells him he's a sick man and then asks him what he'd do for $100,000—"chop off my head?!"
Not all suicidal references are quite as lighthearted. Eminem soberly tells George that he "should've let yourself die. Now you're f---ing stuck."
George suggests that he was beaten as a child by his father—the driving force behind him becoming a comedian. A skit references serial killers.
Drug and Alcohol Content
George, Ira, Laura and her husband drink quite a bit of wine and beer during a chaotic evening. Laura's husband appears to be the most inebriated: He is, at the very least, the most gregarious.
One of Ira's friends smokes what appears to be marijuana from a small pipe bowl. George, visiting his doctor, references a handful of sleep-related drugs the physician prescribed.
We see a poster featuring the late comic John Belushi smoking a cigarette. Ira tells George that he's going out to pick up a carton of cigarettes, even though neither of them smoke.
Other Negative Elements
Ira can sometimes serve as a pretty good conscience for George, but he falls down a bit when it comes to his own life. When George asks Ira if he and his friend Leo can write jokes for him, Ira tells him that Leo's unavailable (a lie) and never tells Leo anything about the opportunity.
George initially keeps his remission from Laura, fearing that if she knew he was getting better, she wouldn't want to see him again. Indeed, Laura, George and Laura's husband lie to one another incessantly.
When Laura's children ask their distracted father whether they can watch the R-rated movie Borat, he says yes. In old video footage, a young George is shown making a series of prank phone calls.
It's pretty much cliché to say that when you're dying it's much easier to appreciate life. And when he's really sick, George gets it. When he recovers, though, he almost immediately loses it again, reverting to the self-absorbed jerk he was before. "You're never going to be happy because you can't get away from yourself!" Ira hollers at him.
But, finally, George experiences a bit of halting redemption. We see him slink back to Ira (whom he's fired), hat in hand, hoping to be friends again. He's even written Ira a handful of jokes for the young comedian's own routine—an incredible gesture, in context.
"I'm better in my body," George admits. "My brain has a ways to go, though."
That's a mature, positive message, one I wasn't expecting to find in the middle of a Judd Apatow/Adam Sandler/Seth Rogen movie dedicated to the prattling on of foul-mouthed comics who absolutely love to push buttons, envelopes and anything else they can get their mics close to.
But let me be clear about the ratios at play here: A teaspoonful of salt doesn't go very far toward keeping raw chicken fresh—especially when you leave it out on the driveway for, oh, several summer days.