August 6, 2009

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Funny People (R)
Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Leslie Mann bring their considerable acting and comedy talents to Funny People, Judd Apatow’s uneven but entertaining love letter to comedy.

Adam Sandler is George Simmons, a comedian with a career of Sandler-like comedies but with an angsty, lonely personal life unlike the life our seemingly well-adjusted married-father-of-two local hero appears to have. Thusly, when George finds out he’s very sick with a likely-fatal disease, he doesn’t really have a close friend to turn to. Perhaps this is why he hires Ira (Rogen), a comedian still honing his stand-up chops at night and working at a deli during the day, to be his personal assistant. In addition to writing jokes for George, Ira becomes his confidant, helping him through the physical effects of his illness as well as the emotional ones. Part of the emotional making-peace-with-his-life involves George reconnecting with his family and the girl who got away, Laura (Leslie Mann), his one-time girlfriend who is now married and has two kids with somebody else. (As in Knocked Up, the kids are the adorable real-life children of Leslie Mann and her husband Judd Apatow — Maude and Iris Apatow — and the on-screen relationship between the two girls and the girls and Mann is charming and genuine.)

Then, for better or worse, George gets better.

Funny People gives hefty roles to its supporting characters — Laura’s goofy husband Clarke (Eric Bana); Ira’s roommates Leo (Jonah Hill), who George calls the XL version of Ira, and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), the star of a bad sitcom called Yo Teach — and to comedy. In addition to getting snippets of George, Leo and Ira doing stand-up, we also get bits of a routine by a hyperactive guy named Randy (Aziz Ansari, familiar to Parks and Recreation fans for his role as Tom, the office suck-up). And other comedians make an appearance, including Bedford’s own Sarah Silverman as well as Andy Dick, Carol Leifer, Paul Reiser, George Wallace, Dave Attell, Norm MacDonald and Ray Romano, who has a very funny bit with Eminem, also appearing as himself. Though I try to steer clear of too much pre-movie publicity, I did catch an HBO special offering extended versions of comedy from some of the actors who perform in the movie and, along with the bits performed by the comedians, the movie’s warm glow for the art of stand-up really speaks to the comedy nerd in me.

Unfortunately, that comedy special was probably funnier than the movie itself. Funny People has some great laugh-out-loud moments and some nice, meaty moments of drama, but it also has some moments that have you wondering why they’re in the movie. There is something particularly draggy about the movie’s final 30 minutes that keeps it from having the kind of sharpness that Apatow’s previous movies (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked-Up) had even when they got to their emotional low points before the final climax. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I liked what the movie was trying to do but I wasn’t always entertained with what it was doing. The ideas behind Funny People ultimately enchanted me more than the reality.

That said, it fails more in comparison with other Apatow movies than in comparison with movies overall. Sandler’s performance is very strong. We get a well-rounded view of George — a man with regrets and a real desire to grow but who is also appropriately self-absorbed and, like most of us, more interested in thinking about change than actually changing. If you aren’t completely sold on buying Sandler as anything but his early Little Nicky, Happy Gilmore roles, Funny People could convince you that he has greater range.

And as much as we can argue about Apatow and some of the problems with how he writes women, I really did like Leslie Mann’s character and performance. She might be an extreme example but her Laura gets at some of the frustrations and regrets that come with leaving your younger self behind and becoming a married woman with a family.

There was so much that I wanted to like, more than actually enjoyed, about Funny People that I couldn’t help feeling a bit let down by the movie. But adjust down your expectations a bit and there’s still enough to appreciate to make the movie worth your while. B-

Rated R for language and crude sexual humor throughout and some sexuality. Written and directed by Judd Apatow, Funny People is two hours and 20 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures.