The inner demons of unhappiness, anger, competitiveness, sexual insecurity, and fear that eat the soul of an outwardly successful professional comedian are of keen interest to other comedians, their mothers, their shrinks, and maybe even their mothers' shrinks. It's the rest of us who are left out of Funny People, Judd Apatow's furiously anguished and, at 145 unshaped minutes, quantifiably endless tragi-comedy about a sad showbiz clown and his ilk.
Of course, characters and dramas built around the anger that fuels the funny constitute a venerable black-humor subgenre: W.C. Fields reveled in the muck, and the jolting movies The King of Comedy and The Entertainer made art out of the emotional contradictions of professional comics. But Funny People is a less successful stab at explaining jerks who make jokes. The movie, deeply personal to its maker, is too self- absorbed to convey effectively the emotional complexity that Apatow has in mind. The message that comes across is: We're all screwed, and then we die. Ba-DUM.
Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a comedy superstar whose comfortable routines of swinging-bachelor affluence (interrupted only by high fives from adoring fans) are upended when he's diagnosed with a malignant blood disease. Not funny! There's nothing like a fatal illness to harsh a mellow, even in sunny California. And Sandler works the territory with the same fascinating intensity and daring disregard for likability he brought to his great work in the anti-funny Punch-Drunk Love. Lonely and vulnerable, George plucks Ira (Seth Rogen), a struggling up-and-coming comic, to be his assistant. His joke writer. His paid-companion-to-sit-with-him-while-he-falls-asleep. All of the above. The ailing star also asks Ira to invite Ira's roommates and fellow comedians (Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill) to write material for George, too. But Ira doesn't convey that part of the news: Maybe he's annoyed because, as played by the newly trim Rogen, the character is required to endure his pals' tedious jokes about his healthy physique, as if he broke the rules of the schlub club.
Funny People is like that: Men who are at ease with comedy and uneasy in life behave badly, selfishly, and inconsistently in sickness and in health. (Even when his prognosis brightens, George retains the symptoms of a schmuck.) But guys aren't the only losers in Apatow's cosmos. As Laura, the love of George's life who left him years ago to marry a better, nonshowbiz type (a funny, feisty, hotcha Eric Bana good for Laura!) and raise an adorable family, Leslie Mann dutifully represents all women who have ever loved a charming, unreliable guy and given up while waiting for him to ripen. Laura is a thankless role to play she's her own kind of flighty cuckoo but at least she's allowed to be a married adult. The only other female of any consequence is Daisy (newcomer Aubrey Plaza), a deadpan girl comic in the mordant Janeane Garofalo mode. In a twisted take on postfeminism, Daisy stands by her right to sleep with famous men simply because they're famous.
To promote Funny People, Universal is pushing the angle that Apatow, who wrote and directed The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, is one of today's most pop-culturally attuned dramatists, specializing in the funny anxieties of talkative boy-men. (Said anxieties include sex, women, commitment, adulthood, regular working hours, and societally mandated norms of hygiene.) The come-on is that the movie assembles a great party of popular actors who have become famous by associating with Apatow among them Rogen, Mann, and Hill and then raises the stakes: Look, it's Sandler, grand master of a parallel school of boy-man comedy, in the lifelike leading role of a rich and famous star! For a kick, other famous comedians (e.g., Paul Reiser, Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano) and one famous rap musician from Detroit (Eminem) appear as themselves.
But the stars twinkle like distractions. And in his long, sobering story without a punchline, Judd Apatow confounds three crowds: traditional Sandler fans expecting goofy sweetness, Virgin/Knocked Up boosters hoping for raunchy fun, and connoisseurs of movies, however offbeat, that know (as professional funny people say) how to kill. C–