You heard right. In Judd Apatow’s semi-serious Funny People, Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a bizzaro version of himself — a comedian-turned-comedy star who is lonely, self-hating, and who wastes his natural gift on goofy comedies with titles like Merman and Astro-Not, which make Don’t Mess With the Zohan seem tolerable, but not by much. Simmons is told at the film’s outset that he has a rare form of leukemia and hasn’t much life left. It’s a role that calls for denials, epiphanies, bouts with depression, and the kind of just-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that comes with being told you’re terminal. Any good actor can knock it out of the park. Yet after watching Funny People, it’s clear that no one but Adam Sandler could have played George Simmons. What’s most extraordinary about his performance is that although he is playing a version of himself (as Peter Travers puts it, the version that wasn’t tamed by wife and kids), his role is completely transformational. He can never return to lame-brain comedies again.
There’s a moment early on in Funny People when Seth Rogen, who plays Sandler’s assistant and confidante, makes his boss an inspirational playlist. When Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart” starts playing, Sandler’s eyeballs fixate on point in the near distance and he sees mortality for the very first time. Everything he has done until that point, and everything he has yet to do, comes into a painful focus. It’s a gut-wrenching moment — one of many to come — and from then on, you’re invested in whether Simmons lives or dies (and later on, whether he gets the girl or not).
There are many instances where Sandler devolves into his trademark alter-ego voice – -the old lady/young child hybrid that lets Sandler say funny things that otherwise wouldn’t be funny. It adds to the blurring between Sandler and Simmons, and it works. Most people (especially if they miss the film) will shout blasphemy at placing this achievement in the same category as one by Russel Crowe or Leo DiCaprio . But I grew up on Adam Sandler movies, and until yesterday had lost all interest in them (the last one I saw was 2004’s 50 First Dates). This performance was so appealing and affecting, that I found myself on his iMDB page today looking to see his projects in the pipeline (His next film Grown Ups is loaded with potential).
This role is bound to get compared with Sandler’s other knockout turn in Punch Drunk Love, even though it shouldn’t. Barry Egan was another maladjusted freak, like Billy Madison or Little Nicky. He just happened to exist in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, where even Heather Graham is a thespian. In Funny People, Adam Sandler plays a living, breathing person that feels, albeit one who excels at telling dick jokes.