Adam Sandler may well be the least expressive movie star in cinema history. Even in standard goofy-comic mode, his persona is a bizarre amalgam of hostility and nearly autistic self-regard, to the point where he doesn’t so much play off his fellow actors as simply shout them down; I’ve never found that routine especially funny, but obviously his legion of fans would disagree. Sandler’s occasional forays into quasi-serious drama, however, are simply frightening, because they reveal nothing but a black hole where the actor’s soul ought to be. Paul Thomas Anderson’s aggressively expressionistic direction in Punch-Drunk Love managed to cover for him to some degree, but there’s nowhere for our alleged hero to hide in Funny People, which finds longtime pal Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) teasing us with the notion of the “real” Adam Sandler. It’s a commendably dark portrait in many ways, but even in the guise of an unregenerate asshole, Sandler gives the camera absolutely nothing. He’s a contemptuous void.
Rather than distract us with whirligig camera moves à la PTA, Apatow goes the blatantly sentimental route, informing us in the opening scene that Sandler’s character, George Simmons—a wildly successful but fundamentally lonely Hollywood megastar—has contracted a potentially terminal disease. For some reason, this sudden awareness of his own mortality inspires George to latch onto a struggling young comic named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), whose utter lack of guile makes him a lousy entertainer but a sensational sycophant. Ira even accompanies George on his ill-advised mission to reconnect with Laura (Leslie Mann, the director’s wife), the woman who got away, who’s now married to a philandering Australian businessman (Eric Bana) and the mother of two overly cute little girls (played by Apatow and Mann’s own daughters). As it turns out, George isn’t necessarily dying, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t prepared to upend the lives of everybody around him.
So accustomed have I become to resisting Sandler’s alleged charm that it took me most of this ridiculously long movie—it runs nearly two and a half hours—to realize that we’re genuinely not meant to like George Simmons, even after his ostensible deathbed conversion. On paper, this is a courageous performance, especially given the extent to which we’re encouraged to see George as a thinly veiled portrait of Sandler himself. Plenty of actors will play callow narcissists in the first reel (en route to Learning What’s Really Important), but I can’t think of many who’d allow a climactic moment in which they openly check their e-mail during a little girl’s ardent grade-school performance of “Memory” from Cats. (“I saw it on Broadway,” George protests. “She wasn’t as good.”) A final rapprochement notwithstanding, George is pretty much the same self-absorbed dickwad at the end of Funny People that he was at the beginning—a radical notion for a big-budget Hollywood movie that’s being sold as a raucous comedy. (It’s gonna tank so hard.)
Trouble is, we need to care about this self-absorbed dickwad in spite of his flaws, and Sandler seems incapable of revealing the wounded kid beneath the defensive facade. It doesn’t help that in most of his scenes he’s playing opposite an anxious, lovable puppy dog; those who saw Observe and Report this past spring will be amazed at the polar extremes to which Rogen can adapt his gruff-genial comic style. But Tom Hanks faced off against Sally Field in Punchline two decades ago and still managed to create a self-lacerating yet recognizably human character. When Laura looks into George’s dead eyes and tells him she’s never loved anyone the way she loves him, on the other hand, her ardor seems not merely misplaced but downright unfathomable. There’s no there there.