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MOVIE REVIEW

Funny People

Seriously, Apatow tries: But Sandler puts the fun in ‘Funny People’

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 31, 2009

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It is, I guess, an unbreakable law of show business physics that if you keep telling someone he’s a comedy genius, he’ll disavow the comedy and obsess about the genius. He’ll get serious, as if the gift of transporting audiences with laughter weren’t profound enough on its own. Down this road have gone Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Robin Williams, and many, many more, and now it’s Judd Apatow’s turn. Apatow, the director of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin’’ and writer-producer of countless bad-lad farces, may not stand with the above company, but at the moment he’s about the best we’ve got, and “Funny People’’ is his cri de coeur. Today’s lesson: Being funny isn’t any fun.

Correction: Being a world-famous, fabulously successful Hollywood comedi an is no fun. Forgive me if I have trouble whipping up the appropriate sympathy. “Funny People,’’ which is deadly earnest beneath its scum of raunchy dialogue, tells the tale of George Simmons (Adam Sandler), an A-list star of blockbuster comedies with titles like “Merman’’ and “Re-Do.’’ He lives in an empty mansion, has no friends, and is more or less a self-absorbed jerk. He has also just been informed he has a rare and probably fatal blood disease.

You’re thinking: OK, now George will spend the rest of the movie learning to hug puppies, and when he befriends one such puppy, a struggling stand-up comic named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), the pieces of his redemption seem in place. What’s notionally good about “Funny People’’ is that Apatow knows it’s not that easy - that Hollywood Scrooges stay Scrooged, no matter how much trendy psychobabble they talk.

What’s best about “Funny People,’’ actually, is Sandler, who takes the weird, resentful anger that has always coursed beneath his comedy and puts it right on the surface. George is genuinely unpleasant in private yet profanely hilarious in public; because he lives for the crowd, he has no interest in individuals. Sandler knows something about this, I think, and while his range as a serious actor is extremely narrow, he can cut surprisingly deep within those limits. This is his best dramatic work by far, conveying the dead-eyed piteousness of a George Simmons without begging us to like him.

The rest of the movie does that for him, or tries to. Rogen’s Ira is an unworkable paradox, a stand-up who’s also a passive-aggressive sap, and when George takes him on as an assistant - and as the sole person who’s in on the star’s medical secret - the gofer tries to humanize the boss. This leads to such near-sublime moments as a fit of weeping (Ira, not George) in the Palm restaurant, but Apatow, who’s back in the director’s chair with his own script, tries to cover too many bases. Ira has the full complement of nutty, trash-talking Apatovian roommates: Jonah Hill as a combustible rival stand-up; Jason Schwartzman as a preening sitcom star; the mordantly pretty Aubrey Plaza as the comedienne next door. They hit their marks and get their scabrous laughs.

In other words, the film wants to touch on human truths and still bring the funny. That can and has been done (submitted for your approval: “City Lights,’’ “Sullivan’s Travels,’’ “Annie Hall,’’ “Groundhog Day’’), but because Apatow hasn’t figured out the proper mix, he adds instead of subtracts. And adds and adds: At 146 increasingly strained minutes, “Funny People’’ is two movies, the first (and better) of which concerns George’s illness and ends at around the 90-minute mark.

The second movie is about the star’s attempts to win back the ex-flame he years ago chased away with his boorish behavior. She’s married with children now and is played by Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann; the kids are played by his daughters, Maude and Iris. This isn’t quite as nepotistic as it seems, since Mann is a brightly sardonic comic actress and the girls make a cute vaudeville tag team, one deadpan, the other dreamy.

Yet the final hour, which takes place over a long weekend in Marin County, goes nowhere slowly. The point - George may be cured but he’s no better - is lost amid the unfocused farce, and it’s up to Eric Bana to walk away with the honors as the ex’s husband, a cheerfully neurotic stud. The only way to salvage this part of “Funny People’’ would have been to hack it off like a diseased limb, and I say this as someone with an unhealthy admiration for the charms of Leslie Mann.

The problem is that Apatow is stuck between gears. (That, and there’s probably no one around him to say no at this point.) Hiring the great cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (“Schindler’s List’’ and so on) means little when a director lacks a distinct visual sensibility. Trying to honestly portray the way people simultaneously need and use each other is impossible when all the characters can do is talk about each other’s testicles.

Pottymouth has served Apatow well; few recent moviemakers wield gutter-talk with such scurrilous wit. The endless groin jokes in “Funny People,’’ though, go beyond shock-comedy into pathology - they’re the equivalent of a nervous tic. Gross-out humor is Apatow’s security blanket, and he’ll never move on until he gives up that blanket. If he can - if he wants to - he may yet make a real shocker: a comedy that’s both funny and rich.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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Judd Apatow

Apatow on life, death, and 'Funny People'

Writer-producer-director Judd Apatow's upcoming film,"Funny People," tackles some darker themes than his previous films.

FUNNY PEOPLE Written and directed by: Judd Apatow

Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Bana

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 146 minutes

Rated: R (language and crude sexual humor throughout, some sexuality)

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