I Must Think of a New Life: On the Deliberate Duration of Judd Apatow’s Funny People

Funny People (2009) | Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

I’ve long been a defender (or perhaps apologist, given your perspective) of Judd Apatow’s Funny People, a film nearing the decade mark of consistently rattling around inside my head. Detractors often cite its extensive duration as a sign of excess and unfulfilled ambition. Clocking in at 152 minutes for the director’s cut, Funny People is practically a Lav Diaz film in comparison to its American studio comedy brethren.

The film is not much of an outlier in Apatow’s work, as his four other feature-length films all top out at or around two hours. These runtimes, however, are largely a product of his producorial instincts. He rarely resists the chance to let a talented star in his universe shine. Luxuriating in their presence, irrespective of advancing the plot, often causes his runtimes to swell. Funny People stands out, though, because it needs to be as exorbitantly long as it is, but not necessarily to make the film any more entertaining or grand.

While its long runtime might inhibit others from reappraisal, the uniqueness of the film’s approach to the cumulative effect of time keeps drawing me back in. I’ve long considered Funny People a fascinating experiment, even if it doesn’t necessarily work in its totality. Apatow’s ambition to bend comedy into the shape of drama without breaking things entirely makes him an heir apparent to James L. Brooks. An Altman comparison might also be tempting, not necessarily due to similarities stemming from their shared use of large ensemble casts and improvisation, but rather from a desire to eschew familiar genre conventions.

The length of Funny People seems to correlate with Apatow’s lofty aspirations. Artists typically utilize larger canvases—in film, with time and duration—to cover sweeping expanses, portray grand scale, or chronicle wide-ranging changes. On the surface, Apatow’s third feature appears to require its two-and-a-half-hour runtime largely to provide enough character depth to sustain the odyssey of George Simmons (Adam Sandler). A comedian similar to, but not based upon, the actor portraying him, George receives a likely terminal leukemia diagnosis at the outset of the film and then sets about making amends, contemplating his life, and making one last play for the girl that got away.

Apatow devotes the first half of the movie to letting George’s illness play out, though as even the trailer lets viewers know, his body responds to an experimental treatment that effectively cures him. Funny People scarcely shows him suffering from the cancer; the only scenes of physical pain are intercut during a performance where George croons a parodically morose tone about his own irrelevance to a somewhat baffled audience. The song—which begins with him positing “how will you people live without me?”—summarizes George’s general approach to dealing with his condition. He downplays the effect it has on others and shirks any responsibility to grapple with what his loss would mean to them.

At one point, George’s sister emerges in a montage to chide him for not taking a more active role in the life of his young nephew. His response? An unconvincing apology for not being better, and a half-hearted defense of his past outreach efforts—sending DVDs. There’s no indication that he intends to the criticisms to heart or improve himself. Any changes will have to be made for George, not by him.

Critics at the time of its release seized upon the film’s title to make jokes at its expense: “Not-So-Funny People,” claimed David Edelstein of New York magazine. But like so much else about the film, Apatow wields the title as a misdirect, priming his audience to expect the familiar comforts of comedy but instead supplying a tragic story about how George’s ego and fame keep him paralyzed and unable to make the alterations in his life necessary to achieve happiness.

On the surface, it would appear that Funny People‘s runtime is a necessary component to lend gravitas to George’s journey. But that common interpretation for why a long movie needs to be as long as it is ultimately belies the real purpose of Funny People. The film does not need to be as long as it is to document the evolution of George Simmons, in large part because there is little evolution to be found. Rather, Apatow has to show us so much of George’s journey in order to underline the film’s central irony: how a character can endure so much and change so little.

Funny People stands out among Apatow’s other directorial efforts, most of which ultimately reaffirm the comforts of comedic genre fare: a person dislodged from society becomes re-integrated; the virgin gets to bloom at last; the slacker dwelling in perpetual adolescence finally grows up by way of an unplanned pregnancy; the middle-aged married couple in a rut reconciles; the incorrigible hot mess opts to let the old ways die in order to convince the man of her dreams that she’s in it for the long haul. By the end of Funny People, George Simmons can write comedic material for someone besides himself. It’s the first time he acknowledges that Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is not just his body man but perhaps a worthy protégé—all it takes to get him there is nearly dying and getting rejected by the love of his life. Apatow just barely avoids ending his film on a totally sour note. It’s a grim assessment of humanity’s limited capacity for reinvention, delivered through the only vehicle Apatow knows: comedy.

The film’s power comes not from its depth but rather from its breadth. The ending, markedly less hopeful than any other in Apatow’s filmography, deliberately defies the desire to observe reconciliation or transformation. The sheer amount of time we’ve spent with George serves an ironic counterweight to just how little we actually see him change or grow. Funny People seldom offers its protagonist forks in the road, the kind of cinematic moments in which a character has the chance to make a decision that alters their very being. Instead, Apatow provides a steady drumbeat of opportunities for George to choose action over stasis, and the character routinely opts for the former.

George evinces the slightest movement towards maturity after the realities of his treatment set in. “I think I played it all wrong, Ira,” he wistfully confides to his assistant, “I think I played it all wrong.” It’s the first time he admits to a mistake on his part, and the revelation suggests that perhaps he might finally take the steps necessary to reckon with his misery. But that promise is soon undone by the news that his cancer has entered remission. “I wasn’t expecting this to work,” George utters in disbelief. “I was getting used to being sick, thinking I was pretty good at that.”

Rather than jump for joy, he reacts tentatively and uses it as an excuse to slip back into the person he used to be. The miraculous outcome reinforces George’s assumption that everything will work out for him in time, that the world will continue to provide for him as it always has. George likens his lifestyle to an addiction at one point, and the runtime helps audiences to experience the resultant inertia. Apatow’s approach puts viewers in George Simmons’ unenviable position, resentful of each passing second that hurtles him towards an uncertain future and away from an idealized past.

This thematic concern places Funny People in conversation with one of the Great American Novels known for its slender length: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The Simmons-Gatsby parallel is clear: jaded, wealthy men who become obsessed with a woman from their past, fixating single-mindedly on a lost romantic opportunity, and assuming that it holds the key to dispelling their ennui and turning back the clock to a more innocent time. Both women are married, of course, though their husbands’ infidelity and neglect leave an opening for things to change, only to have each decide at the last minute that they prefer their current arrangements.

Apatow differs from Fitzgerald in one key way, though. Unlike Gatsby, whose woe upon losing Daisy is transmuted into tragedy by his murder, George Simmons receives no such romanticized treatment in the wake of his rejection. While The Great Gatsby lets its central figure stand as a cautionary tale for the perils of Golden Age thinking, Funny People forces its protagonist to live on and come to terms with the rejection he receives from his old flame. Apatow deals less in neat symbols and more in the messiness of reality, never letting Simmons slip into the realm of the representational.

As the two former-flames share a day of amorous bliss together at her home following his remission, Laura (Leslie Mann) indicates a willingness to hitch her future to George. In him, she sees someone who also feels existential angst over missed chances in the past. Lying together in bed, the two watch old tapes from Laura’s acting career, a vocation she gave up for her husband and family. “I feel like I didn’t reach my potential,” Laura laments, intimating that she still carries some resentment. Following her admission, George drops all pretenses that his visit is merely an anodyne drop-in, alarming Ira enough to the point where he dares to call out his boss’ folly for taking a wrecking ball to Laura’s marriage. George, unsurprisingly, ignores the message by attacking the messenger. Reacting with anger and defensiveness to Ira’s plea not to instigate a divorce, George defends his actions. “People make mistakes, they change their lives.” This platitude, though, only refers to Laura, not to himself.

If one video precipitates Simmons’ rekindling with Laura, another one initiates his downfall by putting his inflexibility on full display. With every intent of exiling her husband, Clark (Eric Bana), Laura shows Ira and George a video of her daughter Mabel singing “Memory” from Cats. The 11 o’clock number from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical smash features the grizzled, elderly feline Grizabella lamenting the passage of time:

Memory, all alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days
I was beautiful then
I remember the time I knew what happiness was

But for all Grizabella’s mourning, the song is not just her wallowing in sorrow. She hopes to reclaim the glory of the past but succumbs to the reality that repeating the past is a futile gesture. Even the present moment will soon be another item in the rearview mirror. As she sings:

I must think of a new life
And I mustn’t give in
When the dawn comes, tonight will be a memory too
And a new day will begin

The song, however incongruously embodied by a pre-teen, moves Laura and Ira to tears. George, on the other hand, finds little to hold his attention once the novelty of Mabel’s performance wears off, choosing instead to flip open his cell phone. His complete lack of identification with the song sends up a red flag for Laura, who goes on to cite it as part of her justification for maintaining the status quo with her husband. “You didn’t even cry when Mabel sang Cats, what’s the matter with you?” she exclaims in exhaustion and disappointment. It’s more than just a lack of enthusiasm for children that bothers her. Laura realizes George does not fully understand the song because he does not recognize adaptation as an available response to the ravages of time. She understands that a future with him would require her to make all the sacrifices, and thus closes the door on a fantasy from her past.

The “Memory” moment is the closest thing to an obvious signal Apatow gives the audience, indicating that Simmons has barely departed from his starting point. (Appropriately, it does not appear in an early draft of the script dated a few months before the start of production.) There are no bookended shots cementing the circularity of the narrative or other parallelisms. Instead, Funny People draws its power from its consistent accumulation of missed opportunities and squandered chances. Through this approach, Apatow provides a pure illustration of humor, a twist on the concept once apocryphally described by Mark Twain: tragedy plus time. Just don’t expect it to be particularly funny.