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Funny People

Funny People enables Adam Sandler to play a comedian, George Simmons, diagnosed with a fatal disease.  This film differs from other Sandler vehicles in that Sandler is not one of the writers this time and that his character is not the usual vulgar mensch.   The character is vulgar all right, but no mensch.

When George learns that he is dying, he acts up and acts out his anger and worry by doing some very dark stand-up routines in local haunts.  During one of those stints, he sees some potential in a struggling and insecure young comedian named Ira, played by Seth Rogen, and hires Ira as a writer, companion and protégé.

In this Judd Apatow film, the mantle of menschlikhkeit (being a decent and reliable human being) is placed upon the shoulders of Seth Rogen’s character, Ira, who is a struggling comedian working at a deli.  The film is designed to praise Ira’s virtues, though it notes that Ira has faults himself that could, if unchecked, develop into George-scale flaws.  In accepting George’s job offer, for example, Ira fails to tell his friend and housemate Leo (Jonah Hill) that George had offered both of them that writing/protégé job.  Ira and his housemates are Jewish, as is George.

There is a lot of Jewish stuff in this movie.  It begins with Simmons ribbing Ira about “hiding some Judaism.”  Jewishness becomes a leitmotif, or, better, a mantra.  Nice Canadian Jewish boy Ira mentions more than once that he learned much at a Jewish summer camp.  His longest invocation of Jewish summer camp goes like this:  “I was a Jewish summer camp counselor for five years, Machaneh Miriam.  But I’m good with non-Jewish kids, too.”

While at first Ira is not a very good stand-up comic, he does become funnier, and it is the self- (or Ira-) deprecating humor either from him or from his housemates that makes him more admirable and endearing:  “There’s nothing funny about a physically fit man.  No one ever wants to see Lance Armstrong do comedy.”  The implication here is that there’s nothing more admirable than a once heavy comedian who demonstrates the discipline to lose weight and still manages to be funny.

Rogen’s character is loyal to the woman he is pursuing, and upset when she sleeps with a self-important Casanova housemate (Jason Schwartzman) who has had some financial success as a character on a bad sitcom, and who has warned Ira that if Ira does not ask this woman out within a certain number of days, said housemate will bed her.

Sandler’s character, George Simmons, is self-indulgent and self-glorifying.  He has looks and talents and success but uses them primarily to hurt or to exploit others.  He toys with Ira, suggesting that he wants his new assistant to kill him for $500.00.  Then, in all seriousness, he tells Ira to sell his (George’s) car and give the money to charity.  But it is clear that he has never thought about charities before, and does not mention Jewish causes.  His way of facing death is, in the main, to feel sorry for himself, to look at all his old films and TV work first and then to contact the people who have meant something to him in his life and whom he has hurt, ignored or otherwise alienated.

At first, George doesn’t want to tell anyone about his illness.  Ira exhorts him to tell people so that they will “be there” for him.  When there is the possibility of remission, George takes advantage of an ex-fiancee, the love of his life, is cold to her daughters, and wants to break up her marriage.  It is here that Ira intervenes in heroic, not to mention slapstick, style, willing to risk his “friendship” with George, his livelihood and his prospects in show business.  Could this be because something ethical and decent has rubbed off on him from his Jewish summer camp experience?

Apatow may be the first to invoke in a movie Jewish summer camp in any sustained way.  I suppose we should not be surprised that the subject is broached.  After all, recent studies of the American Jewish community all attest that summer camps, even more than youth groups or Hebrew school, have become the strongest shapers of Jewish ethnic and religious identity.

It is noteworthy, however, that Apatow makes a point of insisting that Jewish summer camps do not produce insular Jews.  In the dialogue cited above, Ira asserts that he feels eminently qualified to babysit for non‑Jewish children.  Apatow is also quite insistent that this Jewish summer camp alumnus is not necessarily seeking a Jewish woman.  Indeed, his love interest is not identified as Jewish even though she is pursued by his two Jewish housemates, especially by the one who has been “successful” in a bad sitcom.

In private conversations and in stand up bits, Simmons jokes about making more money on his bar mitzvah than ever again.  We also hear about a Jewish father whose approach to religion was:  “If there were a God, why was there a Holocaust?”  Does Apatow depict Simmons as protesting too much, or does he give his character an out for not responding with grace and with Jewish faith and morality to his illness?

The Jewish men here are all somewhat puerile, in the “in” and “cool” sense, of course.  As for Jewish women, there is one passing reference to inappropriate touching by a Jewish teenager named “Sharon Mizrachi” who was Seth’s first girlfriend at that proverbial Jewish summer camp.

Still, the screenplay does suggest that Ira is (or can be) a mensch and that he has a moral compass that George does not and probably will never possess.  (Good Jew, bad Jew?)  It is not Jewish teachings but a vague Buddhist “karma” that guides George.  So this is a film about Ira getting to spend Tuesdays (and many other days) with an over the top “Morrie” who is his mentor in comedy and in vulgarity.  Ira has the good sense not to emulate his Morrie’s approach to relationships, including, one hopes, George’s aloofness, even in illness, from Judaism and the Jewish People.

—Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel, published in The National Jewish Post and Opinion, October 7, 2009.

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