July 29, 2009 / 10:37 AM / 10 years ago

Apatow stretches with flawed but funny "People"

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The prerelease narrative behind “Funny People” is that funnyman Judd Apatow has gone serious in his third outing as a writer-director and made a drama, albeit one set in the world of stand-up comics.

Actor Adam Sandler (L) stands next to co-star Seth Rogen and director Judd Apatow (R) at the premiere of their new comedy film "Funny People" in Hollywood July 20, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Well, yes and no.

It’s hard to consider “Funny People” as anything other than a comedy even if it does deal with a comic (Adam Sandler) who has a deadly disease. Indeed, a medical checkup only presents an opportunity for Sandler and his assistant (Seth Rogen) to mock a tall Swedish doctor. But there is a serious side to this film that makes the second half go awry.

Apatow as a writer, producer and director has created so many movies whose grosses reach the nine-figure stratosphere that no one should bet against “Funny People” doing likewise after Universal releases it Friday (July 31). If anything, admirers should be intrigued by a “serious” Apatow and accept a flawed comedy from today’s master of laughs as a well-earned stretch. So box office might be slightly off from his greatest highs, but only slightly.

What is intriguing about “Funny People” is how well it plays for half of its 146-minute running time. A seemingly fatal disease that fells one of Hollywood’s top comics, George Simmons (Sandler), causes him to reflect not only upon the emptiness of much of his life but also on the nature of humor. The characters, down to the smaller roles, are better realized and more lifelike than in any previous Apatow film, and he hits all the right notes in the film’s pacing, laughs and emotions.

Then George Simmons has the temerity to get better.

While he is dying, George feels a need for a buddy. Because no one in his life fits that description, he hires struggling comic Ira Wright (Rogen) as an assistant to do everything from writing gags to talking him to sleep at night.

Ira lives with two other comics. Mark (Jason Schwartzman) stars in a hit TV sitcom — which makes you wonder why he needs two roommates — and Leo (Jonah Hill) is a somewhat plumper version of Ira and no more successful. (Rogen has taken off weight since “Knocked Up.”) The rivalries among this trio earn a goodly share of the movie’s laughs.

Ira gets sucked into George’s superstar life at his villa by the sea and during jet trips to personal appearances. As he does, his own comedy writing and delivery improve under George’s influence.

The star’s illness underscores the loneliness of his life. People deal with him because he is a star, but no one wants to get close. So he reaches out to his parents, his sister and her family and even the woman that got away, in a kind of farewell tour of his life.

That woman, Laura (Leslie Mann), is now married and living near San Francisco with an Aussie businessman husband (Eric Bana) and two lovely girls, yet the spark between her and George is still there. Funny how the threat of death makes things so much clearer.

But that “funny” goes missing when the threat is removed. George’s disease goes into remission — and the air comes out of the movie.

George begins to seriously court Laura. George and Ira head to Marin County for an extended melodrama with Laura, her kids and then her husband, who unexpectedly returns from an overseas trip. It’s not very funny, and lacks any real drama. The main point seems to be that once George recovers, he reverts to form: He’s a jerk again.

Ira gets fired and is forced to get his old job at a deli counter back — which makes no sense because he was successfully appearing onstage by this time. Apatow does find a satisfactory note to hit as the movie ends. Nonetheless, the story gets away from him.

These George-being-George sequences spin the movie away from its emotional heart. And a number of characters simply get lost. Ira’s halting romance with a fellow stand-up (Aubrey Plaza, very good) is left in the lurch, as are all the subplots back in Southern California. Couldn’t George’s old flame have lived in the Valley?

Still, Apatow is on the right track. In moving his adolescent male comedies into more adult realms, he sharpens the humor, and the characters deepen. “Funny People” might be a transitional film for Apatow. The good news is that his people remain funny. And it helps to have loads of cameo appearances from many of today’s top funny people.

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