For those wanting Judd Apatow to mature as a filmmaker, you finally get your wish with Funny People.
Apatow's latest comedy, which opens in Toledo today, is the writer-director's most adult work to date, with weighty issues like mortality, loneliness, and lost love as its themes.
Funny People is also his most aggravating film.
Even as the director stretches himself with the darker, more cerebral material, he simply cannot part with the sophomoric humor that made his movies The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up such huge hits.
The first 40 minutes of Funny People plays like your typical free-flowing Apatow comedy, and gets the same kind of big laughs from jokes about sex, penises, and bodily functions. But the movie's remaining 100 minutes or so bounce wildly between pathos and humor, generating little of either.
The result is a comedy-drama that feels like a teenage comedy disguised as an art-house drama - an odd combination that never works.
Funny People is built around an unsympathetic character named George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a popular comic and movie star who learns he is terminally ill with a rare form of leukemia.
George may be a top box-office draw, but he has no one to share his success with: he has no close friends, he's estranged from his family, and years ago he pushed away his true love with his inability to remain faithful.
His dire prognosis prompts George to take stock of his life. He shelves his movie career and returns to his stand-up roots, beginning with a surprise performance at a Los Angeles comedy club in which he delivers a dark, rambling routine heavy on introspection, light on laughs. It's the unfortunate luck of struggling comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to follow George's buzz-kill act. The elder comic, though, is impressed with the young stand-up, and offers Ira a job - first as his joke writer, then as his personal assistant.
As their friendship develops, each dramatically affects the other.
George serves as a comic mentor to Ira, and a guiding hand in his career. Ira helps George reconnect with his pre-celebrity innocence, and, most importantly, to fill the lonely void.
Egged on by Ira, George reaches out to those he's hurt to make amends, including a reunion with his former fiancee, Laura (Leslie Mann). The dormant emotions stirred up by the pair lead to a problematic love triangle among George, Laura, and her Australian husband (Eric Bana) that never makes sense. Would Laura really be willing to leave her husband so quickly, and for an ex-boyfriend who caused her so much pain?
And in another plot twist that doesn't make sense, why would the earnest Ira, who serves as the film's moral center, so callously cheat a roommate and friend (Jonah Hill) out of the opportunity to also work for George when the opportunity arises?
Funny People is full of such perplexing moments, which compounds the frustration level directed at the comedy.
Frustrating because Funny People is, at best, an average comedy that, given the pedigree of the film's cast - including Jason Schwartzman as a self-centered actor with middling success as star of an awful network sitcom - should have been much better.
Frustrating because Adam Sandler's dramatic and self-mocking turn is the comic's best role yet, and most personal.
And frustrating because Apatow is clearly ready to move on to more adult material. If only he could leave his childhood behind.
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