Judd Apatow’s new directorial effort, Funny People, has the potential to be Oscar-winning and cringe-inducing in equal measures. The plot concerns a standup comedian named George Simmons (Adam Sandler) who’s become a mega-star via his roles in bad Adam Sandler-type movies. One day, out of the blue, he discovers he has acute leukemia. Faced with a poor prognosis, George gets back on stage, mentors a struggling young funny man (Seth Rogen), and reconnects with the love of his life (Leslie Mann), who’s married to somebody else.
If that sounds like an unholy combination of Terms of Endearment (“you laugh, you cry”), All That Jazz (a real-life show-biz maven wallowing in a fiction of his own demise) and the 1980 weepie Ordinary People … well, it might have been. Luckily, however, Apatow lacks the conviction to take Funny People to the depths of bathos. Instead, he’s done his damnedest to cram two or three movies into the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time. One of those movies is pretty good.
The good part — which dominates the first hour or so — involves Sandler’s evolving relationship with Rogen’s character, Ira Wright (né Weiner), a cherubic nerd who clenches up onstage and gets funnier when he improvises. A deli sandwich maker by day, Ira sleeps on the futon of his serenely fatuous sitcom star friend (Jason Schwartzman) and endures the needling of a third roommate, Jonah Hill, who tells him he’s lost too much weight to be funny. (Wrong, though Rogen sure has slimmed down.) When Ira is forced to follow George’s surprise appearance at a comedy club, he manages to annoy and amuse the big star in equal measures. George asks him to write some material, and a beautiful friendship is born.
Well, sort of. Famous people can be difficult people, particularly when they’re famous for being funny. The alarming thing about Sandler as a comedian is that he can’t seem to turn his juvenile shtick off, even when he’s brimming with hostility. His silliness has a shrill, aggressive edge that Apatow exploits skillfully in scenes where George hazes Ira or mocks the doctor who’s attempting to give him bad news. And Rogen, playing slow on the uptake here, makes a fine foil.
When they’re together, or when Rogen is just shooting the shit with his roommates (shades of Knocked Up), the movie is frequently hilarious. (There’s even a funny girl [Aubrey Plaza] for Ira to flirt with.) But then George and Ira head to Marin County to win back George’s ex, Laura, and the movie goes off the rails.
When Apatow featured his actress wife (Mann) and their real-life kids (Maude and Iris Apatow) in Knocked Up, mother and daughters played their roles admirably. But when they appear here for an extended domestic interlude in which George discovers the happiness he’s been missing, the whole thing just feels self-indulgent. As George and Laura contemplate taking a drastic step together, it’s hard not to shake your head along with Rogen’s character and say, “She’s just a crazy actress, man.”
Part of the problem is that, while Mann’s character is definitely off kilter, she’s not a funny person. It’s something of a relief when Eric Bana, as her husband, turns up with a broad Crocodile Dundee accent and gives the most entertaining performance of his American film career. If he’d turned on this madness in Star Trek, he could have rivaled Ricardo Montalban.
By this time, though, Apatow has lost his focus, and he never gets it back. What he has here is material that’s simply too ungainly. Funny People might have worked better as an ambitious TV miniseries like the ones the BBC still makes — longer than a feature, but not forced to drag on indefinitely. As it is, the first hour flies by, the last 40 minutes or so feel interminable, and the big emotional payoff never arrives, for better or worse. But, hey … maybe it’ll all make sense in the four-hour director’s cut.