Judd Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” spawned one of the most vibrant and successful runs in American comedy – a frantic, four-year era capped by and summed up in the writer/director/producer’s latest film, “Funny People.”
After the success of “Virgin,” Apatow and his comedy cohorts were essentially given the keys to studio lots. Finding themselves green-lit at every turn, the veteran comic and his close-knit group of friends dusted off their previously snubbed screenplays and took advantage of their opportunity with a nonstop flow of films.
In just four years, Apatow has either produced or helped write numerous movies, among them “Superbad,” “Pineapple Express,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.” He wrote and directed his “Virgin” follow-up, “Knocked Up.” He helped make stars out of Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd.
Now, like a politician spending accrued political capital, Apatow has used his leverage to make “Funny People,” a plainly ambitious 21/2 hour film that has Hollywood wondering if he’s overestimated his Midas touch.
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“People always say that when they become successful that they’ll make their passion project,” Apatow said in a recent interview. “But they never do.”
For “Funny People,” Apatow says he fused two ideas: a story about how surviving a near-death experience changes someone, and an abstract analysis of the nature of a comedian. Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a famous standup comedian who finds out he has a form of cancer. Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright, a young standup taken in by Simmons.
More than anything, “Funny People” is overflowing with a love for comedy and the wealth of experiences of a comedian, from nervously starting out to playing to a packed house. It revels in the backstage banter between standups, the subtlety of good joke-telling, the competitive scrap for fame.
The entire film is imbued with Apatow’s life – he has called it “a culmination of my journey in comedy.” Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann, co-stars as the-girl-that-got-away (from Simmons). Their two young girls, 11-year-old Maude and 6-year-old Iris, play Mann’s character’s children.
“It’s fun to see him grow as a creative person and put those life experiences into his movies,” says Mann. “He’s not sticking to the formula of ‘40-Year-Old Virgin.’ He’s trying new things and experimenting.”
The film opens with a home video of a prank call Apatow, 41, shot in the early ’90s when he was roommates in Los Angeles with Sandler and both were aspiring comics. (“I was directing Adam badly even then,” jokes Apatow.)
Many of the comedians who inspired or worked with Apatow through his career make cameos. One is Paul Reiser (“Mad About You”) whom Apatow interviewed when he was 15 for his Long Island high school radio show, which he used to gain access to comedians such as Gary Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld to learn about the art of comedy.
“In everything – in the songs that I chose, in the comedians that populate it – I just wanted everything to be personal and intimate,” says Apatow.
Some have questioned the appeal of a longer and more serious film from Apatow.
Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein published an open letter to Apatow pleading with him to shorten it.
Apatow says he pitched Universal Studios (which has released all three of Apatow’s directed films) exactly the movie he made, length included.
Criticism has recently been nipping at the interconnected Hollywood comedy juggernaut, which Will Ferrell and Adam McKay also have spearheaded.
Ferrell’s last film, “Land of the Lost,” did poorly at the box office, fueling conjecture that an era was dimming.
Apatow estimates that it would take three failures in a row to lose industry support.
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A sampling of films Apatow touched as producer, writer or director:
Funny People (2009)
Year One (2009)
Pineapple Express (2008)
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008)
Step Brothers (2008)
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
Knocked Up (2007)
The TV Set (2007)
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Fun with Dick and Jane (2005)
The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)
Kicking & Screaming (2005)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
The Cable Guy (1996)