Comic actor George Simmons (Adam Sandler) has made millions doing crap comedy but doesn't feel good about his life. Or his death, which is approaching quickly thanks to a blood ailment. (Its technical term is OMD, or Only in Movie Disease, the kind where you don't have to spend time in bed or lose weight. You get some dark eye shadow, though.)
Apatow, the writer-director of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," starts with a camcorder snippet he took nearly 20 years ago of his then-roommate, Adam Sandler, making prank calls in a prison-bare apartment. A third roommate, another comic, isn't famous. That's part of what "Funny People" is about. Apatow and Sandler's experience gives the movie its foundation.
Ira (Seth Rogen) works at a deli and does stand-up on the side. One roommate (Jonah Hill) is another flailing comic. But the third (Jason Schwartzman) has mysteriously hit it big on a "Saved by the Bell"-ish sitcom. Now, he litters the apartment with his $25,000 paychecks and warns, of a girl Ira likes, that he'll sleep with her in 10 days if Ira doesn't. (By the way, remember this actress' name: Aubrey Plaza. She's awesome.)
George (who is working pretty hard for a dying guy) stops by the comedy club where Ira performs to do a set, likes the way Ira mocks him and hires him to write jokes. Since George has no friends, Ira becomes his only confidante. There are benefits: "You want to f - - - these two girls?" George asks, of a pair of beauties he hasn't met, and then Ira proceeds to bonk both of them.
Like magicians, comics go quiet when it comes to how the game works, but the profession has strange corners and weird vibes that Apatow explores with wit and honesty. Comics don't naturally laugh (they say, "That's funny" instead). They use funny as a club (both in the sense of a weapon used to beat down the uncool and in the sense of a private group that keeps out others -- especially women). They get rich doing comedy that isn't funny.
That George and Ira could bond instantly is a little unbelievable ("It's good to be excited," George tells his new assistant. "I used to be excited."), but so are a lot of things in comedyworld. Like, why does Andy Dick have a career? And what's he doing in this movie? Somewhere in the celebrity fog, George finds himself talking to the biggest star in music -- a summit that reduces even Ray Romano to a looky-loo.
Sandler is close to perfect as the kind of performer who is loved by millions and liked by no one. His ex (an adorable Leslie Mann) believes he's become a better person since he got sick. Has he?
Whether we like this guy is beside the point, but he remains so guarded that Apatow never quite solves the problem of who comedians really are. Granted, it may be as unsolvable as health care. And after 2 and a Half hours, you need a great ending. Apatow doesn't have one.
Still, Apatow has reached the place where they let you make the film you actually want to make, and he's earned it. If he hasn't quite reached Woody Allen's peak of comic melancholy, who has?