A cardboard theater standee for Funny People in which its unsmiling cast poses in front of mosaic-of-life snapshots above the text “The Third Film From the Writer/Director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up” tempts one to turn and flee this Very Important Movie from reigning cinematic comedy kingpin Judd Apatow. And true to its advertising, Apatow’s third turn behind the camera takes itself far more seriously than its predecessors, striving for deep, mature commentary on life, comedy and its practitioners amidst an avalanche of the director’s trademark cock-and-balls jokes. Nonetheless, this step toward grown-up seriousness isn’t, it turns out, a wholly misguided one, at least up until a bloated third act whose indulgent aimlessness is the direct result of Apatow searching, in vain, for a way to profoundly comment on mortality, the fleeting nature of opportunities, and the excitement and loneliness of a showbiz life.
Funny People stars Adam Sandler as film comedian George Simmons, a prick who’s made a mint starring in crap and now lives a miserable life in his Hollywood mansion screwing beauties who don’t like him and pitifully searching for human contact via chitchat with the maid. George is a fictional take on the real Sandler as well as an apparent vision of what Apatow fears he’ll become, a future-self juxtaposed by the past-self embodied by Seth Rogen’s Ira Wright, an up-and-coming stand-up comic to whom George, after learning that he’s terminally ill, takes a shine. George’s ominous blood disease leads him toward introspection and reconciliation, primarily with Laura (Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann), aka the love who got away, a self-reflective journey of reckoning with personal failures that’s complemented by bits involving Ira and his pals (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman) that play like a more muted, industry-centric version of the guys-guys sequences from Knocked Up.
One-liners are delivered with a tentative hesitancy that makes manifest the thin line between humor and the anger, sadness and regret that fuel it. And Apatow’s humanist dramedy and both-sides-of-the-coin celeb life portrait often makes up for its shakiness with blunt sincerity and lead performances that, modeled in part after the actors’ own careers, cut reasonably close to the bone. But then, a prolonged visit by George and Ira to married-with-kids Laura’s home hurls the film into a tailspin from which recovery is next to impossible. This distended sequence may be the writer/director’s rebuke to traditional comedic pacing and clichés (the latter via its inversion of the classic race-to-the-airport climax). Yet in its home stretch, Funny People’s action drags so unnecessarily that it not only drains any impact from its refreshingly pragmatic view of second chances and one’s ability to truly change, but inadvertently eats up time that would have been better allocated to its thoroughly shortchanged conclusion.