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 10 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 180-minute film that has Hollywood wondering if he’s overestimated his Midas touch.
“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 stand-up comedian who finds out he has a form of cancer. Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright, a young stand-up taken in by Simmons.
More than anything, Funny People is overflowing with a love for comedy and all the wealth of experiences of a comedian, from nervously starting out to playing to a roaring packed house. It revels in the backstage banter between stand-ups, 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 six-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.”