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).
While it has its moments, this long latter stretch drains the picture of what little momentum it had and switches the focus to Laura and her own marital problems, which are annoying and not entirely convincing. Beset with persistent disappointment over a thwarted career while living in paradise with lovely kids and a hunky, if errant, mate, she’s just not an interesting or even very tolerable character, her behavior stemming entirely from confusion, panic and emotional impulse. Mann hits all the surface notes, but never reveals anything beneath the manic surface.
While the film ends up as a grab bag of impressions rather than a fully realized work, there’s plenty to savor, beginning with Sandler’s performance. Pic opens with some homemade videos Apatow took of his former roommate making prank calls when they were both aspiring unknowns, and samplings of Sandler’s subsequent early standup work and parodies of the star’s lowbrow comedies both honor and poke fun at the performer’s achievements. But the many insights into everything from the man’s arrogance to his self-derision make you feel you’re getting something real here, and Sandler’s gruff, offhand manner combines with his comic alertness to very good effect.
Playing a frustrated fellow who never knows if his boss is going to praise him or bite his head off, Rogen makes for a fine foil in a performance that, like most of the film, avoids easy shtick. The comic thesps are completely at home in the milieu, while the generally hidden Australian in Bana is exuberantly unleashed here.
No doubt hired to provide upgraded visuals for a director not heretofore known for pictorial niceties, Janusz Kaminski serves up crisp, brightly colored images quite unlike those he usually produces for Steven Spielberg. Soundtrack is dominated by loads of carefully chosen pop tunes.