Much is being made of the fact that the sort-of-serious "Funny People" is directed by Judd Apatow, best known for producing a string of comedies like "Superbad" and "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" and for directing "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." But is "Funny People," starring Adam Sandler as an Adam Sandler-like comedy superstar who is diagnosed with a possibly fatal blood disease, really such a stretch?
As opposed to the films he's produced, which tend to be heavy on goony gross-outs, the Apatow-directed movies, once you strip away their goony gross-outs, are actually pretty straitlaced. Steve Carell's virgin is a sweet-souled innocent who believes in true love. Mismatched one-night-standers Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl in "Knocked Up" decide to stay together and raise their baby. This collision in Apatow's movies between raunch and true romance is what makes them so distinctively odd, and also, I think, so commercially successful. Watching them makes you feel both lowdown and upstanding. And, unlike the recent "The Ugly Truth," where the flip-flop between gross and wholesome comes across as a cynical connivance, the back and forth in Apatow's movies seems genuine. There's nothing subversive about his comedy. He's just being naughty.
In "Funny People," Sandler's George Simmons is the sole occupant of a stunning Malibu mansion with a sea view – testament both to his success and his emptiness. His old flame Laura (Leslie Mann), the one woman he cared about among the many he didn't, is long gone. He pads about the palace like a debauched dauphin, and when his medical diagnosis hits home, he doesn't – to the film's credit – magically turn into Mr. Softy. He's as abrasive and self-centered as ever, only now he's bewildered, too.
The other major character in "Funny People" is Ira (Seth Rogen), a fledging stand-up comic George hires to stay with him as a combination comedy writer-secretary. Ira had been rooming with two other young comedy dudes, Mark (Jason Schwartzman), who stars in a dreadful TV sitcom, and Leo (Jonah Hill), whose brand of stand-up, like Ira's, is heavy on the horny-hormonal.
Surprisingly, given his own background, Apatow doesn't really capture the raucous highs and low of the backstage/onstage comedy club circus. It also doesn't make much sense that George, a major star, would hire Ira, a nobody with a so-so comedy routine. We're probably supposed to feel that George has hooked up with Ira precisely because he's a nobody, but a nobody without much discernible talent?
On the other hand, the way he's portrayed, George isn't exactly a laugh riot either when he's performing. The movie clips of his that we see – where he plays a merman, or a squalling baby – are pretty stupid, and it's not clear if Apatow intended them to be that way. Is he saying that the foul-mouthed, babe-busting George is a fraud for making a fortune in family entertainment drivel? Or is he saying that George, deep down, is a childlike innocent? Maybe a little of both.
Since Ira is basically George's glorified lackey, we wait for the inevitable moment when the tables turn and the king gets his comeuppance. It's a long time coming. (The film is overlong at almost 2-1/2 hours.) In order to engineer the switcheroo, Apatow reintroduces George's ex-love Laura, a former starlet now living with her two daughters and an Australian businessman husband (Eric Bana, using his Aussie accent) in a Marin County mansion. (In this movie, manses are a dime a dozen.) In San Francisco for a shared play date, George and Ira end up hanging out at Laura's homestead while her husband is away, with predictable complications. Since Leslie Mann is Apatow's wife and the daughters, played by Maude and Iris Apatow, are their real-life children, this portion of the movie has a vaguely squirmy home-movie feel.
Sandler is very good, though. This is not the first time he's tried to be a real actor instead of just a gagster. ("Punch-Drunk Love" remains his biggest stretch.) The world weariness he projects as George runs deep. It's the weariness of a star who, even before the bad news hits, seems spiritually depleted. It's a testament to Sandler's performance that he not once milks George's life-at-the-top malaise for easy sentimentality. As for the rest of it, "Funny People," not quite funny enough, or serious enough, falls into the muddle middle. Grade: B- (Rated R for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality.)