Funny People is Judd Apatow's third film as a writer-director, and the first in which he sets aside all the tomfoolery and gets down to dramatic business. This is still a comedy, with laughs as big as the ones in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. There just aren't quite as many of them, and there are none of the fanciful shenanigans at the movie's edges that gave those other pictures their vaguely surreal airs: No musical numbers; no odd and kooky stoners; no improvisational iffs in which the actors take off on ad-libbed tangents. Well, almost none of those.
A lot of Funny People, in fact, plays like the scene in Knocked Up in which a married couple erupted into such a vicious and profane argument you wondered if you really should be laughing. There is certainly nothing funny about the new movie's early scenes, in which an Adam Sandler-esque superstar, George Simmons (Adam Sandler), learns he has a rare form of leukemia and only months to live.
George has made a fortune starring in low-brow movies such as Merman and My Best Friend Is a Robot, but his wealth and fame have alienated him from the world. He lives alone in a mansion. He's estranged from the former love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann), and he has practically no close friends outside of show business. So instead of telling anyone his bad news, George hires an aspiring stand-up comedian, Ira (Seth Rogen), to serve as his fulltime, all-in-one assistant, confidant, apprentice and nursemaid.
Funny People is unusually long for a comedy - almost two and a half hours - primarily because of all the supporting characters Apatow brings into the fray, such as Ira's roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwarzman) or the beguilingly odd young woman (Aubrey Plaza) Ira hopes to date. But the heart of the movie is the friendship between George and Ira, which continues to grow after the leukemia goes into remission, as the film's inescapable trailer has already revealed.
Like Punchline and Lenny, Funny People belongs to the genre of self-analytical comedies that delve into the often dark psyches of people who make us laugh for a living. Funny People feels unexpectedly abrasive, because Apatow dares to make George into a not-entirely-likable protagonist - a man willing to manipulate and use everyone around him, almost by instinct, after having been surrounded by sycophants and yes-men for so long. This is Apatow's emotionally darkest, least genial film, and an exceptionally good and subtle Sandler embraces the duality of his character, a man beloved by the world who secretly hates everyone.
Rogen gives his fullest and most realized performance to date as Ira, the young comic craving his big break who hasn't yet been corrupted and made cynical by the industry. In one of the film's best running gags, the eager Ira constantly tells people things they're not supposed to know, intending to help but instead always causing trouble.
Mann, who is Apatow's wife, has had progressively larger roles in each of his films, and although she's barely on the screen until Funny People's third act, she takes over the last half hour of the movie and pushes it to its ambiguous, less-than-pat conclusion. Funny People is probably too long and unwieldy for the simple story it tells - did Apatow really need to make room for so many celebrity cameos?
But the movie's power sneaks up on you, reminiscent of what screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond once famously described as "the Billy Wilder touch": A combination of the sweet and the sour, because even funny people, like you and I, aren't always being funny.