Candid but long-winded, well observed but undisciplined, "Funny People" feels like Judd Apatow's diploma picture marking his move from high school to college as a filmmaker. Amusing and engaging yet lacking in snap and cohesion, this insider's look at the world of standup comics in contempo Los Angeles rings true in its view of the variously warped, stunted and narrow lives of its mostly male denizens. Adam Sandler's central performance as some version of himself is notable for its revelation of callowness and ambivalent self-regard, which will fascinate some fans and turn off others. Curiosity should spur a healthy opening, with likely widely divergent reactions suggesting questionable staying power.
Although Apatow's name seems to have been on the majority of the comedies made in the past four years, Universal is pushing the auteur angle by stressing that this is just his third film as a director. After the raunchy antics of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," he's gone half-serious here, serving up Sandler's fictional equivalent, George Simmons, as a 40ish comic superstar who learns he has a rare and possibly fatal disease.
This seems like a setup for a tiresomely typical Hollywood story in which a self-absorbed celebrity learns through crisis that there's more to life than fame and success. To the contrary; Apatow's handling of the illness issue is one of the best things about the picture, in that it's underplayed, entirely unsentimental and quite blunt in answering a central question: If George were to get a miraculous medical reprieve, would he continue being an arrogant a-hole? Maybe.
"Funny People" is about individuals -- mostly young, physically unprepossessing, Jewish, horndoggy guys -- who try to make a living being funny. The film is outstanding at observing the interplay and competitiveness among three roommates: Leo (Jonah Hill), a tubby and belligerent performer and writer; Mark (Jason Schwartzman), the painfully self-serious star of a lame TV comedy; and Ira (a now entirely slimmed-down Seth Rogen), an aspiring standup whose life and career take major turns when he starts writing material for George.
Like their mostly below-the-belt stage monologues, the guys' conversation is largely rude and crude. Ira, who takes no end of abuse from George about the fact that he changed his last name from Weiner, never gets anyone in the sack and becomes irate when an offbeat scenester girl he likes, Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), casually gets it on with Mark.
George lives in an extraordinary mansion above the Pacific and invites Ira into his life up to a point. Frank about the perks of stardom where women are concerned, he is similarly blunt about other aspects of his life. "I used to be excited," he confesses, a mountain of unread scripts piled on his countertop, later adding that someone like him has plenty of people to hang out with but no real friends.
The picture bobs along very nicely for 85 minutes or so, engaging smiles and interest with its behind-the-scenes looks at the comedy club culture, the bull sessions that produce new material, the way comics test themselves and each other, their sensitivities and jealousies. When George gets some unexpectedly positive medical news, he celebrates with pals at the Palm, occasioning some amusing cameos from Paul Reiser, Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano and Eminem, among others.
But there's still nearly an hour to go, most of which leaves the L.A. comedy scene behind in favor of the Marin County manse of George's old flame Laura (Leslie Mann), a former starlet now married with two daughters. In San Francisco for a shared gig with Ira, George allows what was intended as a social call to develop into something more and ultimately becomes embroiled not only with Laura's daughters (Apatow and Mann's very cute own sprigs, Maude and Iris) but with her volatile Australian husband, Clarke (Eric Bana).
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